With the announcement of an upcoming Apple Watch, and for those already wearing Fitbit and Jawbone activity trackers, the excitement over self-tracking technology is once again climbing with a deafening crescendo. But consumers are not the only ones with new devices to brag about. These wearable technologies are making a splash in research fronts traditionally dominated by surveys and interviews, of which Andrew Knight has been an early adopter. An assistant professor at the Olin Business School, Knight has found that the use of wearables allows him to answer questions in the field of organizational behavior that simply couldn’t be addressed before.
For instance, by using bracelets that measure electrodermal activity in a study on group collaboration and creativity, Knight was able to gather each participant’s physiological data without needing them to work around an awkward experimental apparatus. “We were actually able to look at the activation of the sympathetic nervous system,” Knight said. “We were able to do that without wiring and hooking people up, so that they could work with one another as they were moving around the room.”
For Knight’s work in team dynamics, wearables are crucial in filling an information gap left from traditional research methods. “To measure dynamics, to measure change over time, you need many data points,” Knight said. “It is infeasible to use a survey to measure something a hundred times over the course of two hours – you can’t do that, someone can’t be filling out surveys constantly.”
Knight primarily uses sensors designed by research groups at MIT Media Lab. One such sensor, the electrodermal bracelet used in Knight’s study on group collaboration, was designed by the Affective Computing research group, lead by Rosalind W. Picard. Requests from individuals with autism spectrum disorders sparked its development. “They told us that their feelings were often misunderstood,” Picard wrote. “Ironically, it is they who are usually accused of misunderstanding people’s feelings! Could we build a sensor to help some of their feelings be ‘seen’ and better understood?”
The sensors were ultimately designed to detect electrodermal activity, or the galvanic skin response, which increases when an individual is aroused through excitement or stress. They are able to achieve eight measurements per second by passing a continuous electrical current between two electrodes. When sweat glands clustered around the palm of the hand are activated by the firing of the sympathetic nervous system, they release bursts of moisture that increase the resistance of the electrical current, which is then detected by the sensor.
With further analysis, data from these sensors are allowing researchers like Knight to explore an individual’s level of emotional activation triggered not only by his or her own excitement, but by the energy level of surrounding people. “During Startup Weekend, teams in the competition are presenting business models to a panel of judges,” Knight said. “We had members of the teams and members of the judging panel wear sensors, and what we focused on in this study is synchrony – the extent to which individuals’ physiological activation is moving together. We found that synchrony among team members brings judges into a rhythm with the team, and being in sync with a team makes people feel good and rate these teams in a more positive way.”
Given their success thus far in opening new research opportunities within the field of organizational behavior, these activity trackers may also one day elucidate team dynamics in a healthcare setting. Currently, Knight uses surveys to assess the quality of collaboration and coordination of doctors and nurses in the operating room, and whether they see themselves as a team. “When there is strong agreement between physicians, nurses, and techs, and when they are in agreement that teamwork is high, then you tend to have a more high-functioning team,” Knight said.
However, Knight has found that physicians, or individuals who enjoy a spot at the top of the hierarchy, often report good teamwork and cooperation during an operation or briefing, while other members of the team, for example, the nurses and assistants, often experience reservations in speaking up, and offer a more negative report of team cooperation. In cases as these, wearable technologies may again find a niche in measuring team synchrony during an operation rather than after the fact.
So while the most marketed use case of self-tracking devices tends to be their application as personalized health monitors, the contributions these wearables have made in the field of organization behavior alone calls attention to their greater potential to take not just the pulse of an individual, but the synchronized beat of an entire team.