Using Social Sensing Technology to Transform Organizations
People analytics is simultaneously an extremely old and new phenomenon. When we use data to uncover the workplace behaviors that make people effective, happy, creative, experts, leaders, followers, connectors, early adopters, and so on, we are using people analytics. Thousands of years ago, this data came from humans’ observations of the world. By watching their collaborators interact with other people and react to changing conditions, people were able to make educated guesses about what makes them effective and happy.
Later, we augmented our senses using surveys and interviews. These methods allowed us to obtain responses from thousands of people, establishing new metrics that were a bit more quantitative, but this did not herald any radical change in the way people run companies.
Today, people analytics is poised for a revolution, and the catalyst is the explosion of hard data about our
behavior at work. This data comes from a wide variety of sources. Digital traces of activity from e-mail records, web browsing behavior, instant messaging, and all the other IT systems we use give us incredibly detailed data on how people work. Who communicates with whom? How is IT tool usage related to productivity? Are there work styles that aren’t well-supported by current technology? Although this data can provide amazing insights, it’s only the digital part of the story.
Data on the physical world is also expanding at a breakneck pace thanks to the rapid development of wearable sensing technology. These sensors, from company ID badges to cell phones to environmental sensors, provide reams of fine-grained data on interaction patterns, speaking patterns, motion, and location, among other things. Because most communication and collaboration happens face to face, this data is critical for people analytics to take that next leap forward and become a transformative organizational tool. By combining precise data from both real and virtual worlds, we can now understand behavior at a previously unimaginable scale.
We’ve developed a compelling set of case studies illuminating a new kind of people analytics. In particular, we’ve seen how slight changes in behavior, from changing when you take breaks to what lunch tables you sit at, can make you happier, healthier, and more productive. Our work shows how people analytics transforms our understanding of socialization in the workplace, the impact of office layout, and even concepts as “soft” as creativity.
Looking to the future, we can use this knowledge to create fundamentally new ways of organizing people that will radically improve the way we work. Office layouts that respond to social context and real-time feedback on communication patterns and interaction styles are new levers enabled by people analytics that no one could have imagined. The years ahead will offer many new opportunities for people analytics that cannot possibly be anticipated. My new book, not coincidentally titled People Analytics, explores some of those limitless possibilities, their foundations in history, and some paths to the future.
Ben Waber (Boston, MA) is President/CEO of Sociometric Solutions, a management services firm that uses social sensing technology to understand companies’ internal communication patterns and drive innovative transformation services. He is also a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, where he received his PhD, and was previously Senior Rsearcher at Harvard Business School. His work has been featured in major media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, Wired, NPR, and The New York Times, and he has given invited talks at companies such as Google, EMC, and Samsung. Waber’s research was selected for the Harvard Business Review’s List of Breakthrough Ideas and the Technology Review’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies.