Using Cell Phones to Enhance Group Collaboration

So many people check their PDAs and text in meetings.  This is a sure sign that the meeting is boring and ineffective.  Is there some way these portable devices could actually increase group effectiveness?

The Meeting Mediator (MM) is a wireless system that monitors group conversation and provides real-time feedback.  The idea is that participants can get feedback and then modify their behavior when they’re doing something that reduces group effectiveness: for example, one person dominating the conversation instead of everyone contributing equally.

MM was developed at MIT in Alex (Sandy) Pentland’s lab.*  Each person at the meeting wears a special “badge” containing a wireless microphone and a transmitter, along with a motion sensor like you have in the Nintendo Wii (Sandy calls this a “sociometric badge”), and each person carries a cell phone that displays the feedback on how the meeting is going.  The badge can measure body movement and can track a few simple voice features, like tone and volume.  The computer system can track everyone’s badges together and can tell how close people are to each other, and how the conversation is going: is there a lot of interruption?  Are people pausing for a second or two in between their turns of conversation?

The most interesting feature of the system is the display: when everyone is contributing equally, a ball appears in the center of your cell phone screen.  But if some people are talking alot but others are quiet, then the ball moves off-center.  Around the sides of the screen are tiny icons that represent each of the participants, and the ball moves closer to the ones who are talking the most.

When Pentland’s research team compared groups with and without MM, they found fascinating results:

1. With MM, there’s less overlapping speech.  That’s because they were more likely to talk as a whole group, instead of splitting up into smaller subgroups.

2. With MM, each turn of dialogue is shorter, meaning that the group is interacting more.

3. With MM, dominant people were less dominant, and the quieter people were more likely to talk just as much as the more talkative people.

Finally, they claim that it wasn’t distracting for people to keep glancing at their cell phone displays.  They based their claim on a measure of “movement energy”, basically using the motion sensor to see how much people moved around during the meeting.  Their assumption is that if you move around more, you’re more nervous, and with the MM displays, there wasn’t increased movement.  I don’t find that very convincing…but the researchers could interview the participants afterwards, or they could analyze videotapes to see how people interacting with the devices.  Were they nervously glancing down repeatedly?  Pointing at them?  Holding them up to show them to others?  (“Look how dominant you are, you’d better shut up!”)

This is great stuff and I can’t wait to read more about this new technology.

*Taemie Kim, Agnes Chang, Lindsey Holland, and Alex (Sandy) Pentland, 2008.  Meeting Mediator: Enhancing Group Collaboration and Leadership with Sociometric Feedback. To appear in Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. San Diego, CA. November 2008.

Teamwork, the True Mother of Invention

Today’s New York Times (December 7, 2008) has a wonderful article by business columnist Janet Rae-Dupree, with this title (in the print edition, Business section, page 3; the online version has a different title).  She starts by quoting what I told her in a recent interview:

Innovation today isn’t a sudden break with the past, a brilliant insight that one lone outsider pushes through to save the company.  Just the opposite: innovation today is a continuous process of small and constant change, and it’s built into the culture of successful companies.

Of course, I was delighted to be quoted in the article, but what makes it a great read is that she ties my research in the hands-on experience of many other executives; as she points out about the above quotation, “it’s a perspective shared broadly in corporate America.”  She quotes a lot of sources you’ve already read about if you follow my blog: for example, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, writing about collective creativity in September’s Harvard Business Review.  She quotes Drew Boyd, a Cincinnati businessman, describing the brainstorming research that I discuss in my book Group Genius–showing that brainstorming is so often used ineffectively.  She talks about how Einstein’s “lone genius” image has been exaggerated, citing Hans Ohanian’s book Einstein’s Mistakes (see my blog entry on that here).

And she closes with an example I didn’t know about: the Innovation Learning Network formed by a dozen health care systems, to exchange innovative ideas.  Kaiser Permanente came up with their KP MedRite program as a result of their participation in this network: the goal of KP MedRite is to make sure nurses aren’t interrupted while they’re dispensing medications.  The director of the network, Chris McCarthy, concludes that “the group effort allows us to move much more quickly and become successful much faster.”