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Sociometric Solutions deploying digital 'dog tags' to track employee interactions

Posted by Scott Kirsner  July 13, 2011 09:29 AM

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Imagine this scenario: you show up at work one day and are handed a small white device attached to the bottom of a lanyard. Your boss tells you that management consultants are studying the way people at your company interact with one another, and the device will monitor whether you ever visit the engineering department, for instance, or how often you talk to people from marketing.

Would you wear it?

The digital dog tag, which Watertown-based Sociometric Solutions calls the "sociometric badge," has a built-in microphone that can gauge how much you talk (versus how much you listen); an accelerometer that can tell how much you sit versus how much you move around; and an infrared sensor that can tell when you're facing other people wearing the badges.

benwaber.jpg"When a consultant comes into a company, they look at org charts and do interviews," says Ben Waber (pictured at right), CEO of Sociometric Solutions and a senior researcher at Harvard Business School. "But our approach is to use these sensors to see how people really interact, over a period of a month or two." They're especially useful, Waber says, for tracking informal communications that people might not report in an interview — like a conversation in a cafeteria line. "Surveys and interviews are just bad at getting information about sporadic interactions," he says. And human interaction is a big factor in all sorts of organizational change initiatives; new product development endeavors; and mergers.

The device, developed at the MIT Media Lab, was used in 2009 by a Bank of America call center in Rhode Island. They found that call center workers who interacted more with their colleagues felt less stressed, handled calls more quickly, but had equivalent customer approval ratings to those who didn't interact as much. Writing about the experiment, Forbes Magazine observed, "Informally talking out problems and solutions, it seemed, produced better results than following the employee handbook or obeying managers' e-mailed instructions." As a result, the bank scheduled employees' breaks so that they could talk more often with one another, rather than less. (Previously, their breaks had been staggered.)

Combined with information about who e-mails with whom (see illustration below), data the badges generate about interpersonal interaction can highlight who spreads information within a company, and who the experts are about given topics. It's also a way to show management which departments don't tend to communicate with which other departments, Waber says. Working with a bank in Germany, the company noticed that people didn't talk face-to-face very often with the customer service staffers — until a new product ran into problems after it was launched.

Waber says that when Sociometric Solutions works with a client company, wearing the badges is entirely voluntary — but more than 90 percent of employees usually participate. The devices need to be recharged daily. (It is fun to imagine the hijinks that would ensue if two employees surreptitiously switch badges, or if an employee attempted to make herself seem more important by walking around the company talking to people from every department — but asking something inane, like where the nearest soda machine is.)

Sociometric Solutions has five employees, Waber says, and is hiring more. It hasn't raised outside funding: "We've been boot-strapping on revenue, and we're very profitable," says Waber. He says they've already produced about 1000 of the badges; in addition to using them on Sociometric's own consulting assignments, they also sell them to academic researchers for about $500 a pop. MIT professor Sandy Pentland serves as the company's chairman.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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