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.