It is an odd thing that such dynamic creatures such as ourselves can live in such rigid worlds. We have the energy to create great things and there seems no end to the variety and means of our self-expression but so often we confine our way of being in the world to systemised routines, familiar modes of operation and the conformity borne of the unthinking use of traditional methods.
The creation of highly predictable processes, largely comprised by the reduction of statistical variability to as near zero as possible, has created the modern world we see around us. But while this is the optimal way to work with repetitive production methods, it may not be the optimal way for humans to work.
This is particularly true in the work place where our human tendency to socialize and seek novelty is constrained by the structure created by protocol and habit, as well as the physical architecture of the office and factory. It can seem that the more closely procedures are followed the less opportunity there is for inspiration and innovation.
But as constraining to human nature as modern work environments are, it is clear that they are effective and there is an understandable tendency not to fix what isn’t broke. Even with the knowledge that the present situation is less than ideal and could be better. So, the question is how to improve the modern workplace without introducing counterproductive disruption?
For that we need data. But for data to be truly useful it has to be gathered effectively and efficiently with the end in mind. Then it has to be collated and aggregated in such a way as to produce meaningful results that can be applied to the real world.
Sociometrics Solutionsis a company started off by a group of PhD alumni from MIT Media Lab that addresses this very challenge. According to Taemi Kim, Chief Scientist of Sociometric Solutions and the person who directs the Social Analytics Division, there was a vision present amongst them of how, “Technology could be applied to the way people behaved…especially in the workplace.”
Data is gathered by having participants wear a badge that is very much like the normal corporate security passes with which they would most likely already be familiar. This environmental sensing badge contains four different receptors.
Microphone: Taemie says, “We do a lot of speech processing noting how fast you are talking, how loud they are talking, what’s your pitch. We get a lot of sense of how you’re speaking and that gives us a lot of information about the content of the conversation or the meeting as such.”
Accelerometer: This is to detect movement around the workplace but more usefully, it can be seen how these movements affect other people’s activities. “At a fine grain level we can look at how closely people are mimicking each other. If I do something does it affect you?”
Infra Red Sensor: This provides information on who the badge wearer is facing and provides a gauge of the quality of the communications that are had throughout the day.
Proximity Sensor: Bluetooth is used to detect who else is around within a 10 metre range.
Privacy issues were another reason for creating a wearable device. Taemie says, “We wanted something personal so that the people who wear it can control when to turn it on, when to turn it off. And they know for sure what it is collecting. We never provide individual data to managers.” Also, the audio is recorded is processed and primarily analyzed for tone, tenor and manner of communication rather than for anything that is specifically said in a given conversation or interchange. Users also have the option to delete the data if they want.
After the data is extrapolated into useful information, “We find that there are certain concepts that are elementary building blocks — influence, consistency, activity level and mimicry.”
These building blocks can be applied in a variety of ways to different situations. Taemie says that, “For a pharmaceutical company, a certain combination of these might be very useful and meaningful.” But for a different industry it might be very different how these building blocks are chosen and are applied. “So we test this out with our clients and try to understand what are the important things and what are the significant things in their situation.”
Reassuringly, it seems that it is not required to dig to deeply into people’s psyches to obtain useful results. Examining social signals and interactions in a given behavioural environment can be every bit as fruitful if not more so.
“There is a whole area of research on what people are feeling internally. Trying to detect emotion. Trying to detect what their psychological states are. Our approach is a little bit different. We are trying to be more like: What are the external behaviours that we observe? For Person A expressing their anger might be different from Person B on how they express anger.”
Aside from being minimally invasive the data gathering and processing time is relatively short. “Usually what we recommend is a month of collecting data. The first week people are just getting used to wearing the badges and after the first week people go back to their normal behaviour.”
One of the benefits of having worked with many clients in a variety of industries has been the growing understanding of what a workplace that is conducive to creativity and productivity looks like.
“We now have a sense of what kind of communication or what kind of pattern seems to induce creativity. What kind of settings tend to induce more of a mix or more of an inter-team interaction. Based on that we have been giving advice to a lot of people who design offices, who design commercial real estate. Based on the knowledge we have gathered we have been able to give advice on how to design better work stations.”
By being able to measure before and after, Taemi and her colleagues are able to give objective data on how things have changed.
“So, if you reorganised your floor-plan we can tell you how you, or how your team, interacted before and how they are interacting now. By adding a coffee machine or changing the location of a printer changes how people interact or who they meet throughout the day.“
The overwhelming advantage of this approach lies in the use of data to determine and model real world behaviours to garner information that can be used to establish practical next steps for businesses and institutions to develop an environment that is not only productive and efficient but, seemingly, also caters to what makes human beings creative, inspiring and innovative.
Taemie Kim is Chief Scientist of Sociometric Solutions and directs the
Social Analytics Division. Taemie is an expert on data science and
collaboration technology with experience in the mobile and consulting
industry. She received her Ph.D. from the MIT Media Lab.