Digital trace data can be used to capture organizational practices in granular detail and enable the automation of a wide range of managerial tasks. One example is Digital Productivity Assistants (DPA) that harness digital trace data about knowledge workers’ performance and make targeted suggestions for how to improve and optimize their work patterns. Previous research shows that despite benevolent intentions to increase workers’ wellbeing, DPA tend to introduce novel forms of exploitation and control. Inspired by Michel Foucault’s philosophical strategy of ‘problematization,’ which emphasizes how practices are constructed in the form of problems that subsequently shape certain solutions, this paper takes a critical yet constructive view of DPA. Specifically, we conduct a genealogical reading of the DPA tool, Microsoft MyAnalytics, to investigate the problematics that have structured its emergence, as well as how its uses imply certain discursive commitments to philosophical and ethical questions. In the prevailing discourse, DPA cast digital trace data as a learning opportunity and thereby commit to individualizing the responsibility for handling the paradoxical nature of increasingly fluid work arrangements. Conversely, in our account of the history of MyAnalytics, we uncover a ‘lost discourse’ committed to trace data as a resource that can help knowledge workers negotiate excessive workloads. We propose the problematization lens as a way critically to articulate alternatives and speculate about instantiations of digital technology that today seem ‘unthinkable’.
Bibliographical noteEpub ahead of print. Published online: 30 May 2023
- Digital productivity assistants;
- Algorithmic management
- Management of knowledge work
- Problematization lens
- Critical IS