Tools of the Trade: Olin School Experiments with Wearable Technology

Many businesses are making their first forays into the use of wearable sensors, a quickly evolving technology that collects information about the wearer’s behavior or physiological condition.
Tools of the Trade: Olin School Experiments with Wearable Technology

Walt Disney World Resort, for example, has been testing the use of RFID-equipped wristbands for park attendees. Visitors can use their wristbands to enter the park and make credit purchases. The wristbands also act as parking passes and hotel room keys. In the future, guests might even be able to use the technology to schedule a place on park rides or make dining reservations. At the same time, Disney can aggregate the data these devices generate so it can better understand the behavior of park guests and adjust to emergent patterns.

As wearable technology becomes more powerful, less expensive, and more prominent in business, can business schools create richer learning experiences by bringing the technology into their classrooms? At Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, we think so.

In the fall 2013 semester, we initiated Project Sense, a program that introduces students to wearable technology. With the technology’s sensor-based metrics, we can give students objective, quantitative data on how they engage in interpersonal interactions.

DYNAMIC DATA

Traditional models for giving students feedback on their interpersonal skills rely heavily on surveys and one-on-one coaching sessions. While these approaches are useful, they are limited by their inherently subjective nature. That’s why we wanted to discover whether wearable sensors could offer students more insight into how they interact with their peers.

Off-the-shelf technology is currently limited, but we use a device called a Sociometer, developed at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Sociometer is worn around the neck on a lanyard, much like an identification badge. Embedded in the device are an array of sensors, including microphones, Bluetooth, infrared, and an accelerometer, which record moment-by-moment markers of conversation and body movements to paint a detailed picture of group and interpersonal dynamics.

Each device costs approximately US$500—the university now owns 20, and we plan to purchase more in the future. We gather data as students engage in a range of experiential learning activities. Students can go to an online portal to access personalized reports, easy-to-read charts, and graphics derived from the sociometric data.

PUTTING THE SENSORS TO WORK

So far, we have used the Sociometers in three primary experiential activities:

Mock interviews. Students are given the option of receiving sociometric feedback during 30-minute mock interviews in Olin’s Management Communication Lab, in addition to the interviewer’s immediate verbal feedback. The Sociometer measures, for example, how much and how well students engage in vocal and physical mirroring of their interviewers, behaviors known to indicate interpersonal influence. It also provides data on how well students pace and balance their parts of the conversation.

While the idea of wearing a device during an interview could be intimidating, almost all students opt to use the Sociometers. They find the resulting data to be an enlightening part of their practice.

Consulting teams. We also give students the option to use the devices in our CEL Practicum Consulting course, which is coordinated by our Center for Experiential Learning. The course matches student teams with local businesses for semester-long projects. Although sociometric feedback is most complete if all team members wear the devices, participation is voluntary. During each meeting, the Sociometers gather data on how often students engage with different team members, when and how often they are contributing to meetings, and how their team’s dynamics are changing over time.

Without the feedback, students may be peripherally aware of their intra-team dynamics, but they tend to focus primarily on their consulting relationships with clients as they gather data, analyze problem information, or produce deliverables. The Sociometer ensures that they also understand their behavior in groups and learn to manage group dynamics more effectively.

Teamwork exercises. Student teams also can receive feedback on how their group members interact during classroom exercises. For example, our MBA students recently used Sociometers as they completed the Everest 90-minute leadership and team simulation from Harvard Business School Publishing.

After the most recent simulation, sensor data showed teams how their group’s interactions differed from other groups and how those interactions could have influenced their performance. For instance, teams with more equal participation among all members attained a higher percentage of their simulation goals than teams with less balanced participation. The data also revealed differences in the leadership styles of men and women—men talked significantly more when they held the “Leader” role, while women in the same role did not.

FUTURE PLANS

We plan to apply the Sociometers to an increasing number of experiences at Olin, from networking and recruiting events to negotiation exercises. As sensors continue to get smaller, cheaper, and more advanced, their possible uses in the business world will only grow. We believe that by integrating sensor technology into experiential learning, Project Sense will help students become more self-aware and influential business leaders.

Karren Watkins is a research associate and director of Project Sense at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. Andrew Knight is assistant professor of organizational behavior, and he conceptualized and initiated Project Sense. Ron King is director of Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning, senior associate dean for special projects, and the Myron Northrop Professor of Accounting.