Real Time Monitoring of Group Dynamics

A new book reveals a way to monitor behavior within groups.

Sandy Pentland, one of the world’s top data scientists, has just published a book called “Social Physics.” The volume covers his extensive research into what really works in business. Using a sociometer device and a technique he developed called reality mining, he tracked human behavior in some of the world’s top organizations. “Social Physics” explains his research into what has made these organizations thrive in today’s interconnected business environments.

Many managers are strictly goal oriented and insist on tasks being completed with a minimal amount of chatter. However, Pentland found that the most important catalyst for success within a group is an environment that changes behavior and drives learning through a high amount of social interaction. This has always been the case in high-level professional environments, but he found that it is just as important in low-level jobs.

It is not always possible to have interaction and engagement in the workplace but Pentland suggests that a simple change like sending entire teams off together as a group on coffee break, instead of individually, can increase productivity. His research found that this type of modification costs nothing to implement and resulted in a $15 million increase in productivity from his study group. Chatter should be permissible as it can be profitable.

Pentland also found, using his sociometers, that diversity within a group is preferable. Most managers hire people who are a “good fit” with the rest of the people on his/her team. This style of group dynamics produces a cohesive group that comes to a consensus quickly but it tends to fall into groupthink. In this case, bad ideas get reinforced as much as good ones. The top performers in Pentland’s research diversified their sources of information in a way that was a mix of both cohesiveness and diversity.

The study of business management has traditionally been a mix of folk wisdom and the latest fads. Business schools and consultancies look at successful organizations, examine their wisdom and emulate them in PowerPoint presentations and case studies. Pentland’s approach is more scientific. He envisions a workplace where managers observe work practices and interactions in real time through sociometers embedded in ordinary corporate badges.

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