Datafication increases meaningfulness at work, a PSU study finds
Author: Crista Tappan, The School of Business
Posted: September 3, 2019

Using software to record activities at work can enhance meaningful experiences among professionals according to a recent study from The School of Business at Portland State University. There is a catch, however – the recording of this data, if too constricted and tedious, may result in a reduction of meaningfulness.

Businesses today are beginning to take advantage of technology to document a worker’s daily activities and productivity. This process, often referred to as datafication, enables managers and employees to turn their daily activities into standardized data. Ultimately, the goal of this process is to enable employers to identify progress or lack thereof. Understandably, this process is at a crossroads for employees. On one side, there is the potential to give the opportunity for praise over work achievements. On the other, there is the potential for an unreasonable amount of time being spent on the process itself, and away from one’s actual work, leading to a reduction in daily opportunities for meaningful experiences. People looking at computer screen

Requiring employees to record their activities, and thereby be accountable to the institution, occurs at a juncture where meaningfulness is one of the most sought‐after work features. The study points out that many employees feel that the meticulous recording of their everyday work activities is often time-consuming and makes it difficult to reflect their work holistically. This study seeks to give a better understanding of the nuances involved in this process and help businesses transition negative responses from recording worker data to positive ones.

The study, “Datafication and the pursuit of meaningfulness in work,” co-authored by PSU business faculty Erica Wagner and Pamela Tierney, was published in the Journal of Management Studies. The researchers found that qualitative, less-structured recording of activities at work can help employees by justifying the worth of their work and showcasing corresponding achievements, thereby contributing to experiences of meaningfulness. 

According to the study, meaningful experiences are not a direct result of the work that is done; rather, they are constructed based on how individuals account for the significance and value of their work.

A barrier to experiencing meaningfulness and ultimately job satisfaction is an inability to see value in one’s work. The researchers suggest that datafication of daily activities in the workplace can help individuals and their supervisors see their successes more clearly.

“Employees want to be recognized for their achievements,” said Wagner. “But they also do not want to just be a row in a database.”

The researchers urge HR professionals to investigate the pros and cons of datafication in the workplace and adopt a systems design that promotes meaningfulness rather than taking away from it. The study concludes that the most important element in any approach is granting some level of control to employees over their data.

The study’s co-authors include lead author Mari-Klara Stein from Copenhagen Business School, Sue Newell from Bentley University and Robert D. Galliers from Loughborough University.