A Numbers Game: Quantification of Work, Auto-Gamification, and Worker Productivity

Aruna Ranganathan, Alan Benson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations

Abstract

Technological advances and the big-data revolution have facilitated fine-grained, high-frequency, low-cost measurement of individuals’ work. Yet we understand little about the influences of such quantification of work on workers’ behavior and performance. This article investigates how and when quantification of work affects worker productivity. We argue that quantification affects worker productivity via auto-gamification, or workers’ inadvertent transformation of work into an independent, individual-level game. We further argue that quantification is likely to raise productivity in a context of simple work, where auto-gamification is motivating because quantified metrics adequately measure the work being performed. When work is complex, by contrast, quantification reduces productivity because quantified metrics cannot adequately measure the multifaceted work being performed, causing auto-gamification to be demotivating. To substantiate our argument, we study implementation of an RFID measurement technology that quantifies individual workers’ output in real time at a garment factory in India. Qualitative evidence uncovers the auto-gamification mechanism and three conditions that enable it; a natural experiment tests the consequences of quantification of work for worker productivity. This article contributes to the study of quantification, work games, technology, and organizations, and we explore the policy implications of further quantification of work.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)573-609
Number of pages37
JournalAmerican Sociological Review
Volume85
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
For helpful comments, we thank Ethan Bernstein, Angele Christin, Hengchen Dai, JP Ferguson, Amir Goldberg, Arvind Karunakaran, Kate Kellogg, Barbara Kiviat, Tom Kochan, Adam Seth Litwin, Carrie Oelberger, Wanda Orlikowski, Erin Reid, Ching Ren, Amanda Sharkey, Jesper Sorensen, and Ezra Zuckerman, as well as attendees at the Wharton People & Organizations Conference, Wharton People Analytics Conference, Organization Science Winter Conference, Organizational Ecology Conference, University of Michigan Mitsui Symposium, American Sociological Association meetings, Academy of Management meetings, and seminar participants at McGill University, George Washington University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, University of Southern California, London Business School, Washington University in St. Louis, Stanford University, and University of Minnesota. We are grateful for the financial support from Massachusetts Institute of Technology?s Tata Center for Technology and Design. We thank Ishwarya Thyagarajan for assistance with fieldwork. The views expressed here are exclusively those of the authors.

Funding Information:
For helpful comments, we thank Ethan Bernstein, Angele Christin, Hengchen Dai, JP Ferguson, Amir Goldberg, Arvind Karunakaran, Kate Kellogg, Barbara Kiviat, Tom Kochan, Adam Seth Litwin, Carrie Oelberger, Wanda Orlikowski, Erin Reid, Ching Ren, Amanda Sharkey, Jesper Sorensen, and Ezra Zuckerman, as well as attendees at the Wharton People & Organizations Conference, Wharton People Analytics Conference, Organization Science Winter Conference, Organizational Ecology Conference, University of Michigan Mitsui Symposium, American Sociological Association meetings, Academy of Management meetings, and seminar participants at McGill University, George Washington University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, University of Southern California, London Business School, Washington University in St. Louis, Stanford University, and University of Minnesota. We are grateful for the financial support from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Tata Center for Technology and Design. We thank Ishwarya Thyagarajan for assistance with fieldwork. The views expressed here are exclusively those of the authors.

Publisher Copyright:
© American Sociological Association 2020.

Keywords

  • games
  • organizational performance
  • organizations
  • quantification
  • work

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