The Soft-Skills Revolution


BNOnDxhCAAAJvS0Remember back ten years ago when big data and Moneyball analytics changed the sports world?

Consider this your official heads-up, because that kind of disruption is about to happen in business, sales, teaching, and other domains built on soft skills. And it might be because of this little device.

Meet the sociometer. It might look boring, but it provides a window into the most mysterious world of all: the hidden landscape of social interactions that drives creativity, productivity, and success.

The sociometer, worn around the neck like an ID badge, captures tone of voice, activity level, and location. It can tell who you talk to, how often, and for how long. It can tell whether two speakers are face to face, or turned away from each other. It can measure the energy level of an interaction, and use it to determine levels of engagement. Most important, it can combine its data with email and social media to form detailed maps that reveal the inner workings of a team, company, or classroom.

The sociometer was originally developed by Alex “Sandy” Pentland and the folks at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, and further perfected by Ben Waber and other MIT alums who founded Sociometric Solutions. The technology is still evolving, and there are some hurdles to overcome (preserving individual privacy being the most obvious), but it’s easy to imagine how this device might fundamentally change the landscape of work life. Because it’s already starting to happen.

For example: sales firms use the sociometer as a skill-development tool. They show trainees how often top salespeople interrupt clients (hardly ever, it turns out) and then show them precisely where they fall on that scale.

Businesses are using it to maximize team cohesion by altering physical space. For instance, Waber’s studies reveal that 12-person lunch tables lead to significantly more interaction and productivity than four-person lunch tables.

Through an application called Meeting Mediator, the sociometers provide real-time data that shows levels of participation, dominance, and interaction to help people distinguish a healthy, productive meeting from an unhealthy one.

Yes, there’s something Orwellian about the notion that our movements and communications can be tracked and placed into some management algorithm. But if individual privacy concerns can be addressed, I think the potential outweighs the dangers.

We normally think of great social skills as being mysterious and vaguely magical. But when we see like a sociometer — when we see our social world in terms of quantifiable, repeatable patterns — we get a glimpse of the mechanics beneath the magic.  We begin to notice examples of brilliant social thinking all around us.

For example:

• How Steve Jobs designed the Pixar studio building so that all the bathrooms were centrally located — maximizing serendipitous interaction.

• How successful comedy-improv troupes prohibit using the words “no” and “but” and replace them with “yes” and “and.”

• How Amazon’s Jeff Bezos uses a “two-pizza rule” — which states that any team that cannot be fed with two pizzas is too big, and has to be made smaller.

The sociometer may be a new tool, but the most useful truth it will reveal will be an ancient one: we work best in small, cohesive, purposeful tribes.

So here’s a question: would you be willing to wear a sociometer at work?

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12 Responses to “The Soft-Skills Revolution”

  1. Matthew says:

    This sounds destined to be a Google Glass app.

  2. Sarah says:

    The potential sounds amazing and no, I would absolutely not want to wear one!

  3. Kelly says:


  4. Larry says:

    No. Not as a regular item. There are too many other socio-issues that need to be understood before implementation. However, as a training tool used in a training environment, which in essence is a “controlled” environment, then yes, because there is specific data that can be used for improvement.

  5. Joanne says:

    Did Steve Jobs invent the idea of centrally locating toilets? Pure brilliance.

  6. Candice says:

    I’d wear it as a training tool outside the training room. The reason being is people really, really battle to see themselves honestly and if you set a training exercise and track certain meeting, interactions with the purpose of replaying your role you could really improve your EQ etc. Amazing. I can see how people would be fearful of it though.

  7. Praveen says:

    We used these at our company. Due to all the potential issues with privacy, etc., it was voluntary. We tried it on just one group as a pilot and virtually all the employees (including myself) wore it with no issues.

  8. What a cool idea, great for training purposes.

    The reason why a lot of people would possibly not want to wear it is because it would make the unseen seen, like putting a fill up to mark on the inside of a container, and the biggest thing the sociometer would expose would be peoples false facade, especially for people who are takers.

  9. Tom Schibler says:

    Nothing too snappy to say, just wow.

    Dan, I have to compliment you for keeping this blog fresh, every time I check it, there is some new “gold”.

  10. djcoyle says:

    Hey Tom, Great hearing from you; hope all’s well with you and yours. And thanks for the comment — you just made my day.

  11. t-bone says:

    They’d think mine was broken.

  12. it is amazing and it will be smarter.

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