Thursday, March 27, 2014

A keyboard in the hand is worth…

I remember what a challenge it was to learn to type. I took a course taught at my high school in summer school because I couldn’t imagine a whole semester of typing exercises. Now, of course, I type constantly, and I’m pretty fast at it, if not perfect.

I even look forward to conducting telephone interviews when distance prevents face-to-face research, because I can type a transcript as we talk, capturing quotable responses efficiently via my desktop keyboard. I learned that skill decades ago to replace audio recording, because I seldom had time to have to listen to the whole conversation again.

I still have a Chiclets BlackBerry, though I’m all thumbs—in a negative, slow way. I much prefer my iPhone and one- or two-finger mobile typing. Yet for speed, it’s back to my full-sized keyboard.

That kind of input won't work with wearable computing. Some innovators say gestures in the air are enough. With Google Glass, its trackpad-at-the-temple will feed in motion instructions. Tap once to open or play. Swipe down to close. Swipe forward with great speed to get Glass to identify the song you are listening to at the moment.

Samsung, which makes smart watches among other things, has reportedly applied for a patent for an intricate approach for thumb-tapping different sections of your fingers to represent different characters. And I thought learning QWERTY over the summer in an un-air-conditioned classroom was hard.

Nonetheless, I’m sure I’ll take time to learn that, or Twiddler. In the category of devices called chorded keyboards, a Twiddler is a one-handed alternative that has been around for years and is getting renewed interest. Instead of tapping parts of your fingers representing different characters as in Samsung’s vision, using Twiddler is more like playing a guitar. Different finger combinations on the Twiddler play a chord that represents a character or command.

We seem to want an input method other than our voices. Imagine how distracting it would be for everyone around you to be talking into wearable whatevers. People seem grateful that on most airline flights, passengers can’t use cell phones, because no one wants to sit next to that chatty passenger, or even worse, a talker on each side. Imagine a workplace full of people talking into their shirtsleeves or…wait a minute. That describes a busy office with people talking into headsets.

What we need is not only a path for quietly inputting our thoughts so much as for computing power that truly understands what we’re saying and what to do with that information, in common language, when we do talk out loud. Now, for example Google Glass’s spoken menu must be repeated word for word, like “make a call to…” or “send a message to...” I might be inclined to say “send a text message to…” instead of “send a message to….” It doesn’t work.

And as for me and my typing, I will miss the opportunity to go back and edit what I’ve written before tapping “send.”

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wearables point to distinctive communication for productivity

With wearables and sensors,
we know now that people with
more face-to-face interaction
had lots of experts to turn to
when they had questions,
and they completed tasks more quickly.
Especially when it’s more than flashy eyewear taking cool videos, and when it measures more than steps taken or stairs climbed, wearable technology has landed squarely in the workplace. And it has everything to do with communication.

I had the truly exciting chance to talk with Ben Waber of Sociometrics Solutions about a year ago, and since then, I’ve seen his name and his work pop up in business publications all over, recently in Bloomberg Businessweek and the Financial Times.

ID for productivity (more than security entry)

This sociometric story starts with your badge or ID card that hangs around your neck at work, not a digitally connected watch or titanium face frame. A sociometric badge can, as an example, record how you move through your workday, how much time you spend in a meeting, who is talking, and how that affects decisions, using microphones and transceivers. The badge also measures your energy, specifically how you lean it to a dialogue, with an accelerometer noting posture and movement. Collectively, the data point to productivity—or not.

“All the things we think are soft can now be measured,” according to Waber. People’s interactions are quantified with 0s and 1s, the data of personal dynamics, though not exact words that specific people use. Sociometrics Solutions doesn’t record content of conversations but the type and length of interactions. That, with energy metrics, tells a useful behavior story.

By looking at what seemed to be soft skills now backed up by data, Waber has been particularly fascinated by the value of promoting people who help others do their tasks more quickly and who provide people with answers, as opposed to promoting the highest-producers themselves out of producer jobs. “These are the people who help others be more productive. Never before could we quantify this.”

Useful behavior counted in interactions (not surveys)

Sociometrics also quantifies peoples’ networks—how many people you actually talk with during a day’s work. At a major financial company’s call center, Sociometrics Solutions determined that the people with highest efficiency had the most cohesive networks. Simply put, people with more face-to-face interaction had lots of experts to turn to when they had questions, and they completed tasks more quickly.

Eighty percent of the time those call center employees were talking was when lunchtimes overlapped. So what did the financial firm do to take advantage of this insight? It synched more break times as well, essentially a no-cost improvement for more productivity. “A 10 percent increase in crossover interaction and exploration raises the return a bit more than 10 percent. Even a shared, central coffee area where people bump into each other works,” Waber said. 

Conversely, cutting into break time can cut productivity. Reigning in travel budgets for meetings is a short term, line-item fix that could affect long-term employee engagement as people’s networking takes a hit. “Work is getting so complex, that dependency on others is more important," Waber said.

That seems to be stating the obvious, but it raises the urgency for employee communication professionals to enable interactions instead of generating more posts or paper.

So while I walk around with a Fitbit and wear Google Glass, Waber’s wisdom reminds me that lagging or cutting-edge technology is not the problem or the solution for communicators. How employees interact and collaborate, or don’t, is what we need to measure and act on.

Yes, we can ask the right survey questions to measure engagement, but that doesn’t completely define what to do to improve collaboration, maintain culture across offices, or manage change. There’s a reason to pay attention to the sensors popping up on people at work.