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Published: August 29, 2007


The Science of Subtle Signals

Alternatively, a company might use sensors to monitor the response of a new hire as he or she mingles with the different project teams and comes into direct contact with the teams’ work. By basing staff placements on observations of these real-life (but usually ignored) reactions, an organization could create a more fulfilling and productive environment. And marketers are already beginning to use wireless sensors to see how people respond to a new product design, both consciously and unconsciously. After all, about 80 percent of all new products still fall well short of sales expectations, even though companies spend millions on focus groups and surveys to probe consumer interest. If these traditional methods rely too much on the conscious, linguistic communication channel, they would largely ignore the reactions that matter most.

The sensors could be used in other applications as well. For example, many studies have shown that workplace burnout is a serious issue that costs companies millions each year. But because people tend to hide stress, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to detect. Sensors may change all that. In a trial study, Pentland and student Michael Sung fixed physiological sensors on students playing poker for real monetary stakes, and monitored bodily movements, skin conductance, and heart rate. They found that they could identify mo­ments of especially high stress (as later reported by the participants) with 80 percent accuracy. They could also tell about 70 percent of the time when players were bluffing. Pentland suggests that this kind of monitoring might be useful for identifying people who are potentially headed for burnout, and who therefore require more detailed monitoring.

One could easily list hundreds of other ways that sensors might make enterprise more efficient. Im­proving our understanding of individual behavior and what influences it may be only the beginning. Mortensen foresees wiring up an entire team, division, or company, and gathering real information quickly on who interacts with whom, what kind of knowledge they share, and whether the interactions are successful. With networks of social sensors, organizations may soon be mounting a scientific, data-driven attack on the most baffling and damaging problems they face — those that stem from the myriad and mysterious dysfunctions affecting groups.

For example, the most serious problems confronting modern organizations may not be individual problems but group issues: internal polarization that inhibits discussion, or endemic “groupthink.” Teams drift toward mindless decisions because no in­dividual wants to “stand out” from the perceived consensus. These and other dysfunctions are extremely difficult to detect be­fore they cause damage, because they involve nearly invisible patterns in the behavior of many individuals.

Using social network analysis, however, organizations have been able to improve information flow among different parts of their operations. Research led by Steve Borgatti, chair of the organization studies department at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, has used surveys and interviews to map interactions between the engineering and manufacturing departments of a large organization. Borgatti and his colleagues discovered a problem that no executive could have been aware of — that almost all communication between the two groups passed through one particu­larly skilled and approachable person, who was consequently overwhelmed and often behind schedule. After identifying this hidden problem, executives introduced other go-betweens to share the load and improve the departments’ coordination.

Sensors and Sensibility
Sensors, working all the time or close to it, could gather far more accurate data about information flows happening on a minute-by-minute basis. In one study, after constructing a social diagram of a company, the Human Dynamics Group researchers could actually see polarization taking place — as if the company had been put under a microscope. “You’ll see two people going at it in a meeting,” says Pentland, “and then polarization growing around them,” reflected in the way people respond to the two main figures, and gather around them in distinct factions. Analysis of the sensory data in this case showed two people, in particular, trying to lead — both very active, with voice and body language conveying determination and authority. Neither individual showed the kind of mimicry or voice variation that would convey empathy; in other words, neither backed down. Soon others began to be recruited into the two opposing teams. If a manager saw this type of pattern in real time, he or she could tune in to the emerging problem and try to defuse it — addressing the root of the tension and helping the two sides get through it.

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  1. Edward Baker, “When Teams Fail: The Virtual Distance Challenge,” s+b Leading Idea, 5/22/07: An intriguing example of organizational sensibility: Far-flung teams are more effective when members feel operational or cultural affinity. Click here.
  2. Mark Buchanan, The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You (Bloomsbury USA, 2007): The author of this article lays out the knowledge of patterns of behavior in social systems, based on models, observation, and quantum physics. Updated on Buchanan’s Weblog. Click here.
  3. Tanzeem Choudhury, Matthai Philipose, Danny Wyatt, and Jonathan Lester, “Towards Activity Databases: Using Sensors and Statistical Models to Summarize People’s Lives,” Data Engineering Bulletin, March 2006: Summary of Intel research on “smart environments.” Click here.
  4. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink! The Power of Thinking without Thinking (Little, Brown, 2005): On the human propensity for snap judgments, which sensors may enhance — or degrade. Click here.
  5. Art Kleiner, “Elliott Jaques Levels with You,” s+b, First Quarter 2001: Source of the quote about 17th-century science and modern management. Click here.
  6. Karen Otazo, “On Trust and Culture,” s+b, Autumn 2006: Overview of the literature on social network analysis, studying organizations by tracking “who you know.” Click here.
  7. Alex Pentland’s MIT Media Lab home page: Source on the Human Dynamics Group and relevant papers. Click here.
  8. Connectedness Weblog: Definitive blog on social network analysis trends by researcher Bruce Hoppe. Click here.
  9. Managerial Network Analysis: Steve Borgatti’s Web site, with links to his research. Click here.
  10. “Remembering Mark Weiser,” 1999: Memorial site for the pioneer of ubiquitous computing contains a biography and links to sources of research and commentary. Click here.
  11. For more articles on organizations and people, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed. Click here.