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Innovation Economy

Wireless worker badges hold promise — and problems

Sociometric badges help record data about how workers collaborate.

Sociometric badges help record data about how workers collaborate.

In a perfect world, whenever you strolled into a big box store or a tiny boutique, a clerk would be waiting to help you find what you needed, and even walk you to the shelf.

And in a somewhat less utopian future, your employee ID badge would track not only when you showed up to work and when you split, but also which departments you visited throughout the day, how much time you spent talking (or shouting), and how much time you spent listening.

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Sociometric Solutions, a Boston start-up on the verge of disclosing its first major investment round, is marketing a device that could accelerate the arrival of both those scenarios. Already, Sociometric’s “social sensing” badge, worn on a lanyard around employees’ necks, has been used by companies such as Lexington biotech Cubist Pharmaceuticals and Steelcase, the Michigan maker of office furniture.

With sensors and wireless communicators now small and inexpensive enough to be integrated into just about anything, it isn’t a surprise to hear Sociometric chief executive Ben Waber predict that before long, “Every employee ID badge will have sensors in it.”

The sensors in Sociometric’s latest model know when you’re sitting at your desk, when you’re walking around, and where you’re within an office building or store. They can determine, for instance, that the product development team never talks to customer service to understand what customers like and don’t like.

There isn’t a camera; the badges rely on infrared sensors to know when you are clustered with other people in a meeting or conversation. While they don’t record conversations, they capture data about how often you talk versus listen, how frequently you interrupt people, and your tone of voice.

You might call it the NSA style of management.

But Waber makes an interesting case. On the Web and mobile devices, companies have gotten very good at testing different text, images, and page layouts to find out what works best, whether it is selling you a TV on Amazon.com or getting you to fill out a survey. Based on what works, they can redesign their pages. But when it comes to offices or stores, that sort of dynamic experimentation can be difficult.

“Today, the clock speed for that is very slow,” Waber says. “You send consultants out to observe people, interview them, and figure out, for instance, how the best salespeople operate and try to spread that around. But what we’re moving toward is continuous data collection and feedback.” That, he says, will enable companies to try different approaches to office design, corporate hierarchies, and perhaps even work schedules.

In retail, for instance, companies might observe how clerks work in a high-performing location — spending more time with customers at certain hours, doing administrative tasks at other times — and try to duplicate that in stores that aren’t pulling in as much revenue.

At Cubist, which develops and sells antibiotics, about 30 employees in marketing wore the Sociometric badges for a month last year. The experiment helped Cubist discover that people weren’t interacting during the lunch hour, either going out or eating in their offices.

The company, however, wanted to promote networking and conversation over lunch, especially among people in different departments. So it renovated and enlarged its cafeteria, added more comfortable seating, and brought in a new food vendor. “It was a massive change,” says Praveen Tipirneni, senior vice president of corporate development, who wore one of the tags himself.

Sociometric also gathers data about the e-mail volume employees handle, and who tends to e-mail whom. “What the research shows is that the most successful people in the company are most in the flow of information,” Tipirneni says. While Cubist isn’t currently using the badges, he says the company hasn’t ruled out future projects — especially as it builds new offices in California and Europe.

The challenge, Tipirneni says, is ensuring that “communication can be just as effective when we’re distributed, versus all in headquarters.”

Of course, not everyone is going to love the idea of the Big Brother badge. “You have to do a good job of selling this, and how it will benefit employees,” says Alexandra LaMaster, founder of OrgSpeed, a human resources consulting firm in Cambridge.

“When there’s trust between an employer and employee, and they see that you’re moving people around because you want more communication across departments, or to achieve some kind of business result, that’s one thing,” she adds. “If there’s a lack of trust, people might feel they’re being policed. I think it could be effective in the right company with the right culture.”

Waber explains the company doesn’t provide data about individuals “like what is Bob doing at 2:30 on Tuesday.” The data are aggregated to hide identities.

Matt Lauzon, founder of Dunwello, a Boston start-up focusing on new ways to provide employee feedback, says Sociometric is pushing the boundaries — but added that “most exciting companies” do.

“I love Ben’s vision for being able to let companies constantly test to make their workplace or their customer experience better in real life, the same way they can online,” Lauzon says.

It’s a vision of a workplace where information flows like the Mighty Mississippi and cross-functional hallway conversations happen daily. It’s a vision of a retail store where you’re never left to wander while two clerks chit-chat in a corner. And those visions could lead Sociometric to a big business.

But as with many new tools developed for management, one thing is almost certain: Sociometric’s badges will be better loved by bosses than their workers.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

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