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 / Autumn 2007 / Issue 48(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Science of Subtle Signals

Another valuable asset of sensors is their ability to track patterns over time. They show not only who interacted with whom, but precisely when, so managers and employees alike can see how activity in one place — say at an engineering department at corporate headquarters — flows out to influence production far away, at a factory, for example. This is the kind of thing sensors can get at, but questionnaires and surveys cannot.

It is not yet clear, of course, how corporations will handle the understandable concerns of employees and customers about the Big Brother intrusiveness of this type of data gathering. As with Google’s “street view” feature, in which images taken on public streets by a roving camera are routinely posted on the Internet as a part of the search engine’s mapping service, the perceived danger lies in the breadth of observation. People can never be quite sure what activity will be gathered and inadvertently exposed in the random tracking of an unsupervised set of sensors. Knowing this, people might censor themselves more, thereby cutting back the very type of informal and free-form creativity that most businesses need more of.

Pentland, Mortensen, and the other researchers insist that the ethical challenges the use of sensors raises must be taken seriously if the technology is really to be beneficial. “Companies shouldn’t just look at this as another way to spy on employees,” says Pentland. Using sensors for monitoring and control would be a surefire recipe for resentment and loss of morale, he says.

Several ideas might help companies prevent problems. Pentland suggests, for example, that the technology ought to be used on a voluntary basis, with individuals adopting it because they learn the benefits that it brings for both themselves and the company. An organization could store information on individuals’ own personal computers, rather than in a central location. It might also give people the opportunity, at the end of each day, to review the data that’s been recorded about their activities. They could have the option of deleting anything they’d prefer to keep private. The devices might be fitted with an additional button that would erase, say, the last 10 minutes of data, or data collection might be strictly limited to teams, time frames, and workplace settings where there has been explicit agreement in advance to allow the analysis. Although all these possibilities reduce the amount and quality of data that would be gathered, some steps along such lines will be crucial for giving people confidence that their privacy is being protected.

If privacy issues can be resolved, a new world of organizational understanding may be at hand. History teaches us that data, when it becomes available, leads to powerful transformations of human understanding and capability. For example, the great scientific breakthrough of Johannes Kepler, working out the laws of planetary motion, was made possible by the painstaking astronomical observations gathered during the last several decades of the 16th century by the Danish stargazer Tycho Brahe with his own handmade instruments.

In the 1980s, grocery stores first introduced barcodes merely as a technology to improve checkout efficiency and keep inventory automatically. But the resulting oceans of data on product flows have now completely transformed the retail business. Two decades from now, we may be saying the same thing about the wave of sensors currently poised to invade corporate life. By probing the otherwise invisible social interactions on which organizations ultimately depend, these sensors will make it possible to explain scientifically why a creative design team suddenly became dull and uninspired, why a group of brilliant advisors made a series of inane decisions, or why two groups on whose open sharing of details the company’s welfare depended had great difficulty in speaking to one another. Today’s executives and management theorists can only guess the answers to puzzles like these, but tomorrow they’ll have the equipment to find answers by direct measurement.

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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.
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