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I'll Be Watching You

New software makes it possible to monitor employees and clients. It's not as creepy as it sounds.
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I get 10 megabits of Internet data per second on my cable modem, 400 minutes a month of cell phone time, and more than 200 channels of TV, along with all the Wi-Fi my laptop can pick up. But what I really want is to know where my 17-year-old is on Saturday night. And apparently I'm not alone. A Boston University survey found that nearly a third of adults say they would be likely to use technology that would keep them apprised of the location of loved ones. But why stop there? What about colleagues, employees, customers? Tracking them could be pretty useful, too.

It turns out you can track them. And you probably will.

The "can" part is pretty straightforward. No matter how you connect to the computing and communications grid--via cell phone in a car, PDA in a mall, laptop in a Starbucks--you're leaving an electronic trail, and there are services that can pick up that trail and plot your location on a map. These services are now, or soon will be, serving that information up to others at little or no cost.

The "will" part is a little harder to grasp. The notion of tracking people's movements, after all, is more than a little creepy. The idea that businesses might do it to employees or even the general public seems an outright violation of privacy. Indeed, labor and privacy advocates have decried the recent trend of companies electronically monitoring employees to make sure they're not sneaking into bars, padding travel expenses, or moonlighting on company time.

But managers who think the point of electronic tracking is to police their employees are being as shortsighted as teachers who think the point of the Internet is to make it easier to catch students who plagiarize. In fact, once employees and customers understand the sorts of services and capabilities that being tracked makes possible, many will ask to be tracked. The companies that figure this out first will have a leg up--and some may even be able to build new businesses around people-tracking.

One pioneer in this area is the consultancy Accenture. The company has 130 employees in research labs in Chicago, Palo Alto, and the south of France, about half of whom have agreed to be tracked throughout the day by a combination of technologies, including Web cameras and badges that emit radio signals. It sounds like the devious scheme of a paranoid manager, but mistrust has nothing to do with it. Instead, the company's goal is to foster better collaboration between employees who are constantly moving between floors, buildings, and even countries, says Anatole Gershman, the director of the labs. Anyone in any of the Accenture lab buildings can call up a map of the various campuses and see at a glance where anyone else is, and who else is with him or her, so that getting hold of the right people in the right place at the right time no longer is a hit-or-miss affair.

Collaboration between employees at the different Accenture labs has more than tripled since the tracking capabilities were installed, according to Gershman, often because merely noting the presence of someone triggers an interest in contacting that person. What's more, he adds, analyzing records of where employees spend their time helps optimize decisions about hiring, employee assignments, facilities planning, and travel budgets.

Why would customers agree to be tracked? Because it might enable them to get products or services they can't refuse.

This kind of monitoring is perfectly legal and can be dictated as part of any employment contract. But it's not just for the guy at his desk who wants to know where everyone else is; it's also helpful for the employee who's doing the walking around in a building or across a corporate campus. "People want to know where things are in relation to them when they're not at their desks," says Michael Nova, founder and CEO of Kiyon, a La Jolla, California, company that has developed wireless network technology designed to overcome the spotty coverage of conventional wireless networks inside buildings. Kiyon's network can track the location of any device, such as a laptop or PDA, that taps in--and Nova expects that to be one of the technology's key selling points. He notes that employees often waste time hunting for colleagues or for things. Since the location of objects can be tracked by noting in a database where they're stored or by slapping a radio chip onto them, the network could quickly direct an employee to that archived box of signed contracts. The technology can become even more helpful for an employee visiting one of his or her company's less familiar facilities, or if the company maintains a sprawling campus.

The biggest payoff of all may go to employees on the road. Trucking and delivery companies have been tracking their drivers for years to make sure routes are covered efficiently. Companies can use tracking to fine-tune the placement and travel of their field reps to help them reach the most customers. In the past, that would have required a special GPS device and a service costing $60 per month per person or more. But now people can be tracked through their ordinary cell phones for as little as $15 a month. Nextel already offers tracking services in the U.S.--which is far behind Europe in this regard--and other cell phone carriers are rolling out similar offerings. Meanwhile, location-aware cell phones will soon offer traveling employees a variety of services, ranging from finding a nearby restaurant complete with turn-by-turn directions to telling him or her the location of nearby colleagues and customers. That's pretty handy for on-the-road managers who don't have a staff of assistants and travel agents working out these sorts of details for them. The services can even be set up to sound an alert when certain people are within several blocks, encouraging impromptu meetings. And in case of an emergency, there'll be a lot less confusion over who is where.

Why would your customers and potential customers agree to be tracked? Because by knowing where they are, you might be able to offer products or services they can't refuse. If you're a real estate broker, you could send an alert to the cell phones of house-hunters who happen to be within a mile of on-the-market homes that meet their criteria. If you're an insurance agent, you could let clients know their driving patterns qualify them for a discount. If you're in retail or hospitality, you could send out offers of discounts to the cell phones of passersby. "Today companies are effectively blind, pushing services at people who aren't in the right context to receive them," says Accenture's Gershman. "The game changes when you don't have to wonder where they are and what they're doing."

Even simply knowing where your customers are logging on from can help make a tighter connection. "You can marry that with demographic information and get a pretty good guess about age range and income level," says Ted Morgan, founder and CEO of Skyhook Wireless, based in Boston. Skyhook spent two years sending more than 100 people out to drive in and around major U.S. cities, with equipment that mapped all the wireless networks they encountered. Now the company can identify computer locations based on those wireless signals and is offering free software that turns an ordinary Internet browser into one that knows where it is. As a result, Skyhook can provide companies with the opportunity to place ads that are customized to the user's location--here's the neighborhood pizza parlor, here's the sort of car that people in your neighborhood are buying. That customization even follows laptop users around in their travels. "If it doesn't cost you anything, why wouldn't you want more customized information?" asks Morgan.

And that's the bottom line: People-tracking will work only if the people believe it's in their interest to be tracked. I think the advantages outweigh the risks. But making that case could take some time. Meanwhile, if someone can help me convince my 17-year-old that he'll appreciate being tracked by me, I'd appreciate it.

David H. Freedman (whatsnext@inc.com), a Boston-based writer and Inc. contributing editor, is the author of several books about business and technology.

Last updated: May 1, 2006

DAVID H. FREEDMAN

A Boston-based contributing editor, Freedman is the co-author of A Perfect Mess, which examines the useful role of disorder in daily life, business, and science.




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