Big tech companies are responding to these incursions, and to increasing free agency more generally, by deploying algorithms aimed at keeping their workers happy. Dawn Klinghoffer, the senior director of HR business insights at Microsoft, told me that a couple of years ago, with attrition rising industry-wide, her team started developing statistical profiles of likely leavers (hires straight from college in certain technical roles, for instance, who had been with the company for three years and had been promoted once, but not more than that). The company began various interventions based on these profiles: the assignment of mentors, changes in stock vesting, income hikes. Microsoft focused on two business units with particularly high attrition rates—and in each case reduced those rates by more than half.
Over time, better job-matching technologies are likely to begin serving people directly, helping them see more clearly which jobs might suit them and which companies could use their skills. In the future, Gild plans to let programmers see their own profiles and take skills challenges to try to improve their scores. It intends to show them its estimates of their market value, too, and to recommend coursework that might allow them to raise their scores even more. Not least, it plans to make accessible the scores of typical hires at specific companies, so that software engineers can better see the profile they’d need to land a particular job. Knack, for its part, is making some of its video games available to anyone with a smartphone, so people can get a better sense of their strengths, and of the fields in which their strengths would be most valued. (Palo Alto High School recently adopted the games to help students assess careers.) Ultimately, the company hopes to act as matchmaker between a large network of people who play its games (or have ever played its games) and a widening roster of corporate clients, each with its own specific profile for any given type of job.
Knack and Gild are very young companies; either or both could fail. But even now they are hardly the only companies doing this sort of work. The digital trail from assessment to hire to work performance and work engagement will quickly discredit models that do not work—but will also allow the models and companies that survive to grow better and smarter over time. It is conceivable that we will look back on these endeavors in a decade or two as nothing but a fad. But early evidence, and the relentlessly empirical nature of the project as a whole, suggests otherwise.
When I began my reporting for this story, I was worried that people analytics, if it worked at all, would only widen the divergent arcs of our professional lives, further gilding the path of the meritocratic elite from cradle to grave, and shutting out some workers more definitively. But I now believe the opposite is likely to happen, and that we’re headed toward a labor market that’s fairer to people at every stage of their careers. For decades, as we’ve assessed people’s potential in the professional workforce, the most important piece of data—the one that launches careers or keeps them grounded—has been educational background: typically, whether and where people went to college, and how they did there. Over the past couple of generations, colleges and universities have become the gatekeepers to a prosperous life. A degree has become a signal of intelligence and conscientiousness, one that grows stronger the more selective the school and the higher a student’s GPA, that is easily understood by employers, and that, until the advent of people analytics, was probably unrivaled in its predictive powers. And yet the limitations of that signal—the way it degrades with age, its overall imprecision, its many inherent biases, its extraordinary cost—are obvious. “Academic environments are artificial environments,” Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior vice president of people operations, told The New York Times in June. “People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment,” which is often quite different from the workplace.