Managing, Literally, By The Numbers

Business Week

By building mathematical models of its own employees,
IBM aims to improve productivity and automate management

by Stephen Baker

BusinessWeek’s 2006 Cover Story, “Math Will Rock Your World,” announced a new age of numbers. With the rise of new networks, the story argued, all of us were channeling the details of our lives into vast databases. Every credit-card purchase, every cell-phone call, every click on the computer mouse fed these digital troves. Those with the tools and skills to make sense of them could begin to decipher our movements, desires, diseases, and shopping habits—and predict our behavior. This promised to transform business and society. In a book expanding upon this Cover Story, The Numerati, Senior Writer Stephen Baker introduces us to the mathematical wizards who are digging through our data to decode us as patients, shoppers, voters, potential terrorists—even lovers.

One of the most promising laboratories for the Numerati is the workplace, where every keystroke, click, and e-mail can be studied. In a chapter called “The Worker,” Baker travels to IBM (IBM), where mathematicians are building predictive models of their own colleagues. An excerpt:

On a late spring morning I drive up into the forests of Westchester County, N.Y., to the headquarters of IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center. It sits like a fortress atop a hill, a long, curved wall of glass reflecting the cotton-ball clouds floating above. I have a date there with Samer Takriti, a Syrian-born mathematician. He heads up a team that’s piecing together mathematical models of 50,000 of IBM’s tech consultants. The idea is to pile up inventories of all of their skills and then to calculate, mathematically, how best to deploy them. I’m here to find out how Takriti and his colleagues go about turning IBM’s workers into numbers. If this works, his team plans to apply these models to other companies and to automate much of what we now call management.

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