Workplace (2016)

IBM Germany

IBM Germany receives the BigBrotherAward 2016 in the “Workplace” Category for the software “Social Dashboard”, which allows companies to control and evaluate their employees' social behaviour. “Social Dashboard” uses metadata from the in-house social network system “Connections” and creates a score and a “social ranking” for likes and shares. It is an attempt at leaving the evaluation of social interactions to a machine. It will create wrong incentives and more pressure at work.
Frank Rosengart am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Frank Rosengart, Chaos Computer Club (CCC)

The BigBrotherAward 2016 in the “Workplace” Category goes to IBM Deutschland GmbH for their software “Social Dashboard”. “Social Dashboard” analyses data from the in-house social network system “Connections”: Every participant is assigned a score for his or her “social reputation”. The analysis takes into account the connections to colleagues, who is reading and recommending whose memos in the intranet and who is connected to other departments and colleagues to which degree. This way, the employer can gain new insights into the social status that individual employees have among their colleagues.

Having employees share knowledge and experience in-house is vital for most enterprises. Moreover, the word has spread by now – at least among the big companies – that they shouldn’t use Facebook or WhatsApp for this kind of communication, because the knowledge at stake ought to be well guarded. But the basic concept of social networks is simply too attractive – consequently enterprises just develop their own in-house networks, such as Microsoft’s “Yammer” or “Connections” in case of IBM. These platforms can be imagined as internal lookalikes of Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox or Wikipedia.

IBM Connections is a cloud-based platform aimed at enabling and encouraging knowledge transfer and networking within the company. So far, so good.

When individuals connect to each other or someone “shares” a piece of information, these activities contribute to generating a so-called “social graph” – a network of connecting lines between persons. Whenever the recipient of a message votes for it with a “like” or shares it with others, there has to be interesting information in it – or at least it is funny … IBM’s Social Dashboard transforms this data into a score representing the social reputation of the employee.

We assume the IBM research team has been reading the book “The Circle” by Dave Eggers without realising that it is a dystopia, and not an instruction manual. The book tells the story of a worker at a customer service centre who is pressured by her boss into increasing her so-called participation ranking (“PartiRank”), meaning she is supposed to bolster her degree of connectedness within the team – in addition to her already enormous workload.

Just as the social pressure arising from Facebook and the like leads users to reveal more personal data than they actually want to disclose, "The Circle" unfolds towards total transparency and control in the end. The pressure to further raise the score leads to excessive labour. Novelist Dave Eggers invented the story – IBM is working on making it real.

At this point, one might argue that with the "social score", a new, better, qualitative scale of evaluation is created for enterprises and employees. Introducing the "social score" means that it's no longer just about who has done his or her time in the office, but work performance can be assessed in a new and different way. This way it will, for example, be possible to break up encrusted hierarchies, because the skills within the team are allegedly evaluated in a more objective fashion. And after all, it is fun as well! Fueled by "likes", it's like a game to achieve a good score with a couple of mouse clicks. "Gamification" is the magic word of our day. Everything is turned into a competition, a "challenge". At the workplace, too.

But that's not true. Even "Social Scores" don't evaluate how meaningful and effective a person's work is – but only, how much "social dust" the person raises. The "Social Score" is creating wrong incentives: trivial "Likes" add to the score, pointless forwardings clog mailboxes that are already cluttered with messages, and popular links distract from the actual task. And who will prevent my colleagues from conspiring against me not to grant me any likes? "Social Scores" open the door to new ways of bullying and create a new source of stress in the workplace: in addition to performing your tasks, you must now also be careful to avoid a sudden slip in the social ranking.

With this award, we want to remind ourselves that an analysis of communication structures and social graphs is profoundly sensitive and questionable according to labour law. IBM has tested the "Social Dashboard" in-house with volunteers. Should there indeed be a company considering to introduce anything like that in this country, their workers' committee will hopefully bark loudly. Even if the software is not called "IBM Social Dashboard" but "Microsoft Delve", or is created by a completely different company: in the end it will always be the same: more pressure on employees without producing meaningful insights into the quality of their work.

"Social scores" are just another attempt – just like facial and movement pattern recognition in video surveillance – to translate human behaviour into numbers and thus to give more and more power over the analysis of our behaviour to machines.

Social developments like this have to be exposed – in our opinion, the very attempt is worth a BigBrotherAward. Congratulations, IBM.


Frank Rosengart am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
Frank Rosengart, Chaos Computer Club (CCC)

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

Organised by (among others):

BigBrother Awards International (Logo)

BigBrotherAwards International

The BigBrotherAwards are an international project: Questionable practices have been decorated with these awards in 19 countries so far.