To say that much has been said and written about big data in these last few years would be an understatement of epic proportions. People approach this phenomenon from every angle imaginable, but, for some reason, they very rarely take a look at it from the viewpoint of an employee.

It is almost always about how employers, managers and business owners will benefit from using big data and data analytics. From time to time, we also read about how customers will be affected. As far as employees go, nothing. Only silence. Sometimes they are mentioned in passing as the fringe beneficiaries of newly-adopted big data practices, but that is as far as it goes.

Considering what this phenomenon enables, perhaps it is high time to think about the employees and how they might be hurt if their employers start using big data.

Employees in Retail Industries

It is a well-known fact that brick and mortar stores are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with ecommerce stores, their lower prices and increased convenience. One of the ways in which traditional retail stores are fighting back is through enhanced tracking of what their customers are doing and how they are behaving in the actual stores.

While the main goal of this has nothing to do with employees, this data collection practice affects their jobs and dramatically so. Namely, brick and mortar store employees build their relationships with certain customers, benefiting both the store and themselves. They keep track of these relationships either on paper (devices) or in their heads.

With customer tracking practices, this data does not come from the employees, which directly makes their own personally-collected data less valuable.   

Another way in which the retail industry uses data is by introducing data-driven employee schedules that are supposed to enhance customer service. Often times, the only result of this are hectic schedules which are far too erratic for the employees themselves and which result in them being constantly on call.

It is naïve to believe that this kind of big data use hurts only the people who work in retail. Is it really that difficult to imagine any other kind of company using data collection to gather insight that was once only attainable to their employees?

Health-Related Data Analytics

Data collection and analytics often have an ominous air to them, but nowhere is this more obvious than in the way data analytics companies handle health-related insights. This is something that was covered exquisitely in a Wall Street Journal article where people from health data analytics companies shared their practices of crunching the data and providing insights to their clients, mostly large companies such as Wall Mart.

Among other things, they talked about how they informed their clients about employees who were more likely to develop diabetes or other chronic conditions; about how certain employees were more likely to return to hospital following certain procedures and even about which employees are more likely to get pregnant in the near future.

It should be pointed out that everyone involved is required to ask for the individuals' permission to track their data and that these efforts are to a certain degree aimed at helping employees stay healthy (for selfish purposes, of course).

Still, the fact that there is a company out there which knows exactly when you stopped filling your prescription for birth control is definitely enough to make anyone feel uncomfortable, to say the least.

The Other Side of the Coin

The good news is that big data is also commonly used for practices and decisions that benefit the employees. It is, of course, a question whether companies do this for the employees themselves or because they know happy and healthy employees are more likely to be productive. The important thing is that employees can benefit from this either way.

For example, companies and HR professionals can analyze the data to identify employees who seem to be overworked and who are more likely to put in their notice in the foreseeable future. The company can then ease the workload or give a few days off to the worker in question. If the data shows certain employees are feeling angry because they are not being appreciated enough, companies can resort to certain motivators to keep them on board.

Big data can also be used to make decisions that are influenced by the actual performance of the employees (among other things) and not by various subjective and often flawed factors. This can ensure that employees who deserve promotions get them, instead of those who simply know how to navigate office politics.

Closing Word

These are still the early days of big data as part of the business ecosystem, and it will take quite a bit before things settle into any kind of a routine.

The important thing is to start including employees into the mix when we talk about the parties that are being more and more affected by big data and data-driven business decisions.