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August 27, 2014

Are Meetings a Waste of Time? Data Analytics Weighs In

Have you ever wondered whether big meetings are a giant waste of everybody’s time? Now a data analytics startup named VoloMetrix is putting data science to that age-old question, and the answers it’s generating might surprise you.

In most industries, the cost of human capital is the most expensive line item on the annual budget (the oil and gas business is one exception). The salaries and benefits that companies pay their workers routinely account for 50 to 70 percent of their total annual expenditures. And yet, despite the high costs of humans, many companies often lack the capability to track how their employees are spending their time–and perhaps more importantly, how they’re spending other people’s time.

“In a lot of companies, you have to submit a receipt and code an expense code for a cup of coffee you bought for somebody,” says Chantrelle Nielsen, head of customer solutions at VoloMetrix. “But you don’t have to submit anything and there’s no approval process and no real judgment on whether you’re spending $5,000 worth of people’s time in a meeting that lasts all afternoon.”

VoloMetrix is a Seattle, Washington-based software company that’s using big data analytics technology to gauge how efficiently workers are spending their time. The vendor extracts data from employees’ email and calendaring system (as well as tracking IM and phone records), and uses it to create an enterprise graph that shows who employees are connected to, both inside and outside the company, and how they interact.

Based on the data, VoloMetrix generates a variety of predictions and metrics. For example, in sales organizations, the number of emails a sales representative sends and who they’re bringing to meetings (such as senior execs or product specialists) has a strong correlation with their ability to meet monthly quotas. The data is also useful to predict sales outcome, or how much money will a customer spend with the business, and employee attrition rates. The vendor also weighs the data according to geography, and it’s working on refining its models for specific industries.volometrix_logo

Human capital spending is the most expensive item for companies, but the least analyzed, Nielsen says. “Many companies will spend a ton of time budgeting dollars for a process, but then once the process is set loose, the time budget is never measured and no one ever asks questions about who needs to be involved the process,” Nielsen tells Datanami. “So our customers find a lot of wasted time.”

Much of that wasted time is spent in excessive meetings, the VoloMetrix data shows. “Many meetings are worthless. I wouldn’t say most. In some organizations, probably most,” Nielsen says. “Human collaboration is very important. It’s just important to keep it focused on what matters.”

The data shows that, the bigger the meeting, the less effective it often is, and a bigger waste of time it becomes. Studies suggest that meetings with more than seven participants are less effective when it comes to making decisions. “There’s no way this 40 person meeting is a decision-focused meeting, and if it is, you’re wasting 33 people’s time at least, because you can’t efficiently make decision with very large meetings,” Nielsen says.

The vendor also has the ability to track when employees have double-booked meetings or when they’re sending emails during meetings. Both of those are strong indicators of sub-optimal uses of time.

Today, VoloMetrix announced that it’s applied for a patent for the way it calculates time usage. This includes metrics such as the Organizational Load Index (OLI), which shows the amount of time employees consume from the rest of the organization based on meetings scheduled and emails sent. The company also tracks utilization rate, which shows when the user is most active in sending emails or scheduling meetings; and Network Efficiency Index (NEI), which shows how effective the employee is at leveraging other members of their team.

While the data is anonymized and aggregated, the company does retain the capability to send individual employees a report that shows how their time-use metrics compare to the organization as a whole. These reports are confidential, Nielsen says.

By using the metrics and predictive analytics, VoloMetrix hopes to steer companies in the right direction regarding the structure and content of their business processes. Cutting down on excessive meetings is one obvious way to rein in the time leakage. Another is by encouraging managers to resist the urge to use “Reply to All” when responding to email in Outlook or Gmail.

The exact prescription for reclaiming wasted time will depend on the specific customer, and VoloMetrix will work with its customers to determine the best course of action depending on the data.

“We use the outcome data to show where the correlations are and how we can get to the causation,” Nielsen says. “You don’t always know what’s correlation and what’s causation. But once you have correlations, you have a lot more data then you stated with, and then you can start to learn, by doing AB testing, or by just making changes and seeing how the changes track to understand where the causation lies.”

VoloMetrix claims that it’s the only company collecting this type of data. The 3.5 year-old company has dozens of customers at this point, including large Fortune 100 firms like Symantec, Genentech, and Seagate. Its predictive model is based on the content of hundreds of thousands of email inboxes, and will get better as more customers join. Previously, the only large-scale academic studies about how employees use their time based on email-derived data came from Enron, the disgraced Texas energy giant that was forced to turn over email records during its fraud trial. (The possibility that Enron was a model for how to run a business should send shivers down the spine of any executive.)

VoloMetrix hopes to automate what was previously a manual and invasive process conducted by management consulting outfits, such as Bain & Company, where VoloMetrix CEO Ryan Fuller and one other company executive previously worked. “We came out of a management consulting background. Typically the way a company will find out how people are spending their time is by doing a survey or by hiring a consultant to go and ask people how they spend their day,” Nielsen says. “But that leaves people feeling uncomfortable and its unreliable, self-reported data.”

VoloMetrix’s solution is available as a cloud service and as an on-premise application.

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