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Microsoft Updates Employee Behavior-Monitoring Patent

Microsoft updated its U.S. patent application last week for a potential software product that could monitor the behavior of employees within organizations.

The proposed invention, first filed in May of 2010, might run on a network and monitor employee behavior through "multimodal communications" on PCs, smartphones and vehicle-mounted computers. The communications take place via "voice calls, video calls, email exchanges, instant message exchanges, whiteboard sharing sessions, [and] data sharing sessions."

The idea behind the invention is that job satisfaction is based on trust, yet organizations are hierarchical. Consequently, why not make an application that monitors the expressions and gestures of employees to help build up trust? Here's how Microsoft's patent application 20110276369 puts it:

"Organizations are based on hierarchical structures of various types," the patent application states. "Trust levels within an organization depend on relationships and interactions between individuals of different hierarchical levels and/or same hierarchical levels. Thus, improvement of trust within an organization, or in other words autonomy and empowerment of the members, relies on improving interactions, influencing positive behaviors, and discouraging negative behaviors in concrete ways, which in turn may lead to increased levels of innovation and member happiness."

The details of the invention seem quite general. However, the concept of making organizational assessments based on trust seems like an idea taken from the Great Place to Work organization, which uses surveys to measure aspects of trust in rating the best workplaces. Microsoft was voted the No. 1 best multinational company to work for in a recent Great Place to Work survey based on that trust survey instrument. However, outside of employee opinions, Microsoft was rated as the "most hated" company by opinion-tracking firm Amplicate, which measured opinions via social media posts.

The monitoring system described in the patent application can be used on groups of people or it can be used to monitor the interactions between a superior and an employee. Bad behaviors are relegated to verbal comments, cutting people off during conversations, gestures or even mannerisms, which might get scored or highlighted by colored icons in the system.

"Mannerisms may include visual cues such as wearing dark glasses in a video conference, wearing unacceptable clothing to a business meeting, and similar ones," the patent application explains.

If all that weren't enough to improve morale, the system also could be enhanced, enabling future employee behavior to be predicted.

"According to further embodiments, a system may monitor an individual's behavior and use factors from the individual's calendar, email, past practices, etc. to prioritize and predict that individual's behavior, and/or enable the individual to simulate, practice, or train."

The intentions of going ahead with such a system might seem like a joke but it seems to fit with other research projects at Microsoft. For instance, Microsoft Research has been experimenting with a robotic receptionist named "Laura" that was showcased by Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer. A video of Laura shows it sizing up her interlocutors graphically before dispensing shuttle advice. It's not clear what data is being monitored by Laura, although the robot apparently assesses how people dress.

The update to the patent application was first reported in a GeekWire article.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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