Measuring Human Interactions at Work: The Sociometer

What if there were a way to measure real-time human interactions at work, for example in teams and even whole companies? Not just a self-report questionnaire, or observations, but a technology that tracks people’s behaviors, movements, and speech patterns? And what if that data could be used to gauge group effectiveness? Perhaps we could actually see what makes some work groups successful or not.

I recently read about an interesting device that can measure human interactions and sociability called a sociometer device. Have you heard of it? It sounds a bit like a “big brother” spying gadget, but supposedly it doesn’t actually record what people say, just how they speak.

The sociometer, worn around the neck like an ID badge, captures tone of voice, activity level, and location. It can tell who you talk to, how often, and for how long. It can tell whether two speakers are face to face, or turned away from each other. It can measure the energy level of an interaction, and use it to determine levels of engagement. Most important, it can combine its data with email and social media to form detailed maps that reveal the inner workings of a team, company, or classroom.

The sociometer was originally developed by Alex “Sandy” Pentland and the folks at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, and further perfected by Ben Waber and other MIT alums who founded Sociometric Solutions. The technology is still evolving, and preserving individual privacy could be an issue, but it’s easy to imagine how this device might fundamentally help organizations improve performance.

  • Sales firms use the sociometer as a skill-development tool. They show trainees how often top salespeople interrupt clients (hardly ever, it turns out) and then show them precisely where they fall on that scale.
  • Businesses are using it to maximize team cohesion by altering physical space. For instance,  12-person instead of 4-person lunch tables and aligning team breaks at the same time significantly improve interactions and productivity.
  • Through an application called Meeting Mediator, the sociometers provide real-time data that shows levels of participation, dominance, and interaction to help people distinguish a healthy, productive meeting from an unhealthy one.

We normally think of great social skills as mysterious and vaguely magical. But with a device like a sociometer — when we see our social world in terms of quantifiable, repeatable patterns — we get a glimpse of the mechanics behind human interactions. We begin to notice social thinking all around us. And become aware of what makes some interactions less effective.

It’s well-known that Steve Jobs designed the Pixar studio building so that all the bathrooms were centrally located — maximizing serendipitous interaction. From what I’m reading, when we have data that measures how we interact, we once again confirm ancient wisdom: we work best in small, cohesive, purposeful tribes.

Here’s my question to you: Would you wear a sociometer device if given the opportunity and assurance that data is anonymous? What’s your opinion? I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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