Finally, technology proves the benefits of face-to-face interaction

 Oct 26, 2016

In a fascinating article by Alex “Sandy” Pentland*, entitled Betting on People Power, he shows how research with “wearable computing” at M.I.T. has led to the realisation that high performing teams communicated well within the group. “If every team member was engaged and making many contributions, then the group was very likely to be successful”. Additionally, when teams were formed by drawing people from across different parts of the organisation, particularly those individuals who were adept at “forging and maintaining connections”, ideas and innovation were able to prosper, productivity was shown to increase, and silos were able to be broken down.

Some of you reading this may be thinking that this information is old hat. What this recent research reveals however, is that face-to-face communication or video-conferencing not only helps the exchange/transfer of information, but actually “helps ideas gain momentum”. (As an aside, note that the content of the information was not analysed due to privacy restrictions, merely that it happened, how frequently, between whom, and so on.) They found that body language conveys “honest signals” that have far greater credibility than alternate non-verbal communication, such as emails. The body language cues tell us when someone is interested in what we have to say, or busy doing something else, for example. Clearly, if the team is involved in discussing and making decisions, this feedback is vital and directly affects the level of participation. I believe that it also enhances the degree of trust within the team and thereby acts as the social glue in team relationships.

In one case study, (using wearable computing technology) conducted at an American bank’s call centre, researchers tried to understand why some teams handled calls quickly, while others were much slower. They found that the teams that handled the calls the fastest were also those that spoke to other operators the most. When the bank was advised to change coffee breaks from an individually staggered system to team-wide coffee breaks, more ideas were shared and the lagging teams upped their service speed. Company profits rose by millions of dollars when the system was implemented at all call centres.

In another technological study, this time of a bank in Germany, they looked at why the bank’s campaigns were struggling to attract new business. Interestingly, they found that despite excellent technical interaction between the Manager, Development, Sales, Support and Customer Service teams, in-person dialogue, often informal around coffee stations and hallways, did not include the Customer Service team because they were located in a distant part of the building; communication with them was mostly via email. When Customer Service was moved closer to the other teams, so too did the bank’s success with its campaigns.

The article concludes with the idea that technology would be put to better use by complementing “the unique social abilities of humans rather than focusing on the technology that replaces people”. It’s nice to have some proof of what many of us have suspected all along – there’s a synergy at work when people interact face-to-face and bounce ideas off each other; it’s a spark that kindles innovation and creativity and any technology that highlights a way for us to do this better, is really welcome.

*(Scientific American – Mind, September/October 2016, pp32-35)
Alex Paul “Sandy” Pentland is an American computer scientist, the Toshiba Professor at MIT, and entrepreneur. He is one of the most cited authors in computer science, and helped create the MIT Media Lab. Together Sandy and his students have pioneered computational social science, organizational engineering, wearable computing (Google Glass), image understanding, and modern biometrics.

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About the Author:

Fee Hosking  

With over 24 years experience as a trainer, Fee is one of our most senior Professional Development trainers at New Horizons Sydney. With a professional background as a management consultant in the South African manufacturing industry, Fee brings credibility, experience and authenticity to all of the subjects that she trains. She has the ability to engage professionals from the junior to the senior level. Bringing great energy to the classroom, Fee ensures that the learning experience for all who attend is an enjoyable one, which in turn makes it a truly impactful one.

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