One reason why business (and everyday life) is so challenging is that at any given time, you’re dealing with the unknown. The way we get around this is through observing and measuring- and if possible, changing a few things and re-observing and remeasuring, so that phenomena are no longer unknown, and become things that you could predict.
The problem is that some things are less easily observed and measured than others. Another problem is that we often ask the wrong questions and solve problems the wrong way. It’s one thing to observe and measure how long it takes to bake a softball-sized Russet potato in a 1.0 cubic-foot 800-watt microwave oven (approximately 6-8 minutes according to personal observation – let it cool for about 5 minutes before eating), and another to figure out the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow (African or European?).
Until recently, the question of social interaction in the workplace was more like the latter. Even though sociology and psychology are very real fields of study, gathering and measuring human behavior, singly and in groups, is not just complicated in practice. We often ask the wrong kinds of questions and end up getting very different answers.
Culture, upbringing, genetics, nutrition, time spent doing different kinds of activities- these are just some of the many variables that have to be understood before attempting or interpreting a study. Add the fact that when we consciously know we’re being observed, we tend to act differently. Our behavior is inherently difficult to measure.
Measuring Social Behavior
But not impossible. One interesting company has made a business of studying human social interaction within organizations as a means of improving performance. Sociometric Solutions, a Massachusetts-based consultancy firm has developed a sociometric badge, a tracker and name tag with sensors that can record several variables, including but not limited to a person’s location, body movement, interaction, and speech patterns.
This new technology has enabled companies to more reliably – and unobtrusively – track how its employees interact with each other. The use of Sociometric’s unique technology and approach to organizational research has led to changes in their clients’ policies - achieving directly demonstrable effects in improving employee happiness, decreasing turnover, and increasing productivity.
Sometimes, the simplest changes had surprisingly big effects on productivity. In one case at a major bank’s contact center, employee breaks were staggered so that a minimum number of employees were off the phones.
Sociometric Solutions then advised the bank to schedule team breaks together, with alternate crews taking up the slack – pretty much going against what most workforce managers would do. The reason? Employees taking breaks alone had no one to vent to, resulting in stress throughout their working day. Scheduling breaks so entire teams had the opportunity to interact provided a means to release stress. This simple move resulted in 25 percent improvement in the number of calls answered.
Here’s a fascinating NPR interview with Sociometric Solutions co-founder Ben Waber.
How You Could Benefit
However, it’s worth knowing that Sociometric Solutions doesn’t solely rely on their tracking technology to get results. Here’s the approach they take with data gathering according to their website (emphasis mine):
“We use a multitude of technological and analytic tools to obtain the most holistic view of the organization. Our unique approach combines qualitative and quantitative tools that complement one another. We conduct interviews and surveys in addition to our patent pending Sociometric® technology to capture face-to-face interaction, interpersonal dynamics, and social signaling.”
In other words (that they aren’t saying), they are “unique” not because of their approach or processes, but in the accuracy afforded by their technology. They still conduct old-school interviews and surveys, and they still need qualitative data. I’ve no doubt that if they were not very good with those, their tracking technology would be useless.
If the contact center in the example just plain asked their agents what was making them unhappy, they might have gone to the same conclusion themselves. Of course, this presupposes honesty and a lack of self-delusion on both the part of the employees and employers – something Sociometric’s tech aims to make irrelevant.
Interviews, surveys, and observation— these things you can totally do. If you ask the right questions – and ask them the right way- you could get results, that while not accurate enough for some gigantic international banking firm, might be good enough to give smaller companies an edge.
Creating Better Experiences – For Everyone
Employee management is just one area where measuring human behavior could prove useful. It can also lead to better designed experiences – and cleaner public spaces. Like immaculately tidy park grounds. In an early application of the concept, consider how the 6 Disneyland Resorts worldwide position their trash cans.
You’ll hardly ever have a problem looking for a trash can in any Disney theme park, and not coincidentally, the grounds are normally immaculate. This is probably something that someone who’s already visited a Disney park would be able to tell you. Trash cans are never more than 30 paces from any area accessible to the public – max. Most sources state that the usual distance is around 25 of Walt Disney’s own paces. It’s been that way since the late 50′s. Oddly specific, but how did they come up with that number without some fancy-pants tracker?
Simple. Walt Disney himself spent some time observing Disneyland patrons purchasing snacks and recording how many steps they would take before they simply dumped their trash onto the ground.
This simple application of sociometrics wouldn’t have worked if Disney didn’t ask the right questions either. It didn’t matter that most people would actively look for a trash can and hold on to their trash until then. What mattered to Disney was the behavior of people who couldn’t be bothered to care, as this was what actually affected everyone else’s experience. If he had looked for the average or median number of steps as many of us instinctively do, it wouldn’t have worked quite as well.
Garbage cans are just one part of the Disney Experience. Their entire company ethos revolves around calculated ways of delighting people. For instance, souvenir stands double as umbrella distribution areas in case of rain, and rides often include an entertaining audio visual ditty while you wait in queue. The posted estimated waiting time are also much longer than what park managers actually estimate, so you feel delighted when you get your turn “ahead of time”.
Imagine how different the Disney Experience would be if Walt Disney never bothered to observe and measure people’s behavior.
Great! How Should I Start?
Surveys and direct observation will be the main tools you’ll have at your disposal for getting data on human behavior. It might be a (short) while before the average entrepreneur can have tools similar to what Sociometric Solutions uses. But we aren’t exactly helpless.
Human behavior, whether alone or in groups, is always a tough thing to measure. But it’s worth doing. And worth doing now.
If you’ve read this far, here’s a serious attempt to answer the airspeed of an unladen swallow. The airspeed velocity of a European swallow is roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles an hour.
Additional Reading and Sources:
Forget The Office, Let Employees Work From Home - BusinessWeek
MCTP participates in scientific study - United States Army Combined Arms Center Blog
Group Breaks Can Raise Productivity - New York Times
Specs That See Right Through You - New Scientist
Jennings, H.H. 1987. Sociometry in Group Relations. 2nd ed. Westport: Greenwood.
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