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Honest signals

I made a passing reference in an earlier post to work being done by MIT in the domain of non-verbal communication in the business context, now presented in a book by Alexander Pentland, Honest Signals. It seems worthwhile to return to that for a minute.

Pentland defines "honest signals" as certain non-verbal cues that can be seen in the interactions between people, typically in face-to-face communications. Falling generally into four classes – activity, interest, mimicry and consistency – they are subtle behavior patterns that we pay little attention to but that can be observed and measured.

Through what he calls "reality mining" Pentland has discovered and studied this "second channel of communication" – important components of communication that revolve around social relationships and that significantly influence our decisions, even though we may be unaware of their influence at the time.

He cites the counter-intuitive evidence of the destructive nature of certain policies related to socialization in the workplace. AT&T, assuming that the efficiency of one of its call centers would be higher if its staff took lunch breaks at different times found, instead, through Pentland's research, $15 million in performance improvements when they let everybody go to lunch at the same time. Those breaks allowed employees to informally talk out problems and find solutions that reduced stress and improved their performance.

He also likes to cite one component of their study involving entrepreneurs and investors. Investors who were present at the personal pitch of the ideas supported an entirely different set of business plans than those they had selected only through reading.

That understanding of the role of tacit knowledge and the influence of interpersonal dynamics is significant. We are unaware of these behavioral cues in our interactions with others, yet the decisions we make as a result of those conversations are profoundly affected by them. Again: visible behavioral patterns that we don't notice influence, without our knowing it, the decisions we make.

Now, go into your workplace and look around. Do you see high-walled cubicles where individuals scrunch down out of view of others? Do you see long walls of offices with doors creating a kind of "threshold resistance" to connection and communication? Are you a manager resisting socialization in your workplace?

If this is the form of your workplace, now imagine all that is being lost by missing the opportunities for those "honest signals." Is your company struggling to stay in place in your industry? Does this research suggest a different approach?

According to Pentland, "It turns out that those sorts of unconscious signaling behaviors are enormously important in determining the functioning of an organization. In organizations, most of the communication that’s complicated, that’s really important, still happens’s person-to-person; it’s not by email, it’s not by memo. And yet all of that face-to-face stuff never makes it into the digital record. There may be a memo summarizing a meeting later, or an agenda, but what actually happened never shows up. And all the interactions in the hall or around the water cooler are not even in the org chart. And yet that’s where everything happens."

Shop class and individual agency – disaffection and motivation

photo by Marvin Shaouni I was in Detroit last night and had the opportunity to go to Matt Crawford's lecture at the College for Creative Studies. Matt is the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work which has received a lot of recent attention.

By the time he was halfway into his theme, I was feeling a certain unease. His talk felt out of place, perhaps unsympathetic, and maybe even destructive on a campus of creative artistic and craft endeavor and in a community with a collapse of labor.

Although aware of Crawford and his thesis, I went expecting a connection between his appreciation of hand work and the craft basis for the local industry, the evolution of CCS's mission, and the interests of its students.  Matt, however, made no such connection. He presented, in effect, a restatement of his New York Times essay and, although denying he was the voice of a "movement," he nonetheless repeated his uncomfortable segmentation of the white collar world and critical contempt for the paradigms of modern managerial practice. His presentation of the apparent nobility of "individual agency" and its qualities opposed to the experiences of mindlessness in corporations seems very much like a manifesto, and very faulted in the selective comparison.

Matt, although clearly capable of invention (he has a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago and holds a position as a fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia), seems to instead feel more comfortable in the domain of the disaffected. His first job after graduating was on K Street, in effect rephrasing the works and authorship of others and accepting rather than changing an inappropriate production-minded management at a think tank. Now, of course, he revels in his motorcycle repair shop, again withdrawn from a position of influence in innovation and engineering, and exploiting the fruits of others' invention and cloaking it in apparent humble nobility.

The reason this felt so odd was, of course, his lack of recognition of the role that entitlement and opposition has played in the economy of the region where he spoke, and in its stark contrast with the transformational work of efforts such as the New Economy Initiative for Southeastern Michigan. Funded by the Kauffman Foundation, the initiative seeks to start-up more than 400 new businesses in the next three years and, in the process, transform the local capabilities and capacity from the diminished scope of the auto industry into innovations in newer industries such as aerospace, defense and alternative energies.

The goal of the initiative is to “accelerate the transition of metro Detroit to an innovation-based economy that expands opportunity for all.”

The initiative will sponsor and support activities in three strategic areas: talent, innovation and culture change.  Working with other partners in the region and in the state, the initiative will work to: 1.  Prepare, attract and retain skilled workers in southeast Michigan (Talent) 2.  Encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in new and existing enterprises in the region (Innovation) 3.  Change the region’s culture to embrace learning, work and innovation (Culture Change)

While Matt celebrates the nobility of working with your hands, the initiative seems a more effective voice and tool for converting that talent to the greater benefit  of others. I have the expectation that the people engaged in these emerging enterprises will be the authors, as well, of a new way of working, engaging the talent they employ and amplifying the achievements and benefits of their work.

© Jim Meredith

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