Whether you think it’s a good idea or not, mobile and social technologies are creating new ways to follow, analyze and predict how people are “embedded in society,” and how and where they spend their time and money. The implications of these changes for individuals, as well as society, are being studied by Alex `Sandy’ Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program.

 

His current research examines four ways that Big Data can help to understand human behavior: By modeling social influence; by examining social influence dynamics; by actually shaping behavior, and by creating more data-driven societies.  Pentland hopes these insights may help reverse “many of the frustrating phenomena that we are familiar with....fads, groupthink, and projects that just go nowhere.”

 

The MIT researchers looked at social influence networks and their relationship to learning, purchases and other behaviors by following 65 young families for one year. One finding was that social influence incentives work to change behavior more than other incentives because in a group, members have common ties and an exchange network on which to rely. Local information can pressure peers to act in certain ways and to be rewarded for those behaviors. “Incenting the social ties can be efficient,” Pentland explained at a recent MIT CDB seminar.

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In call centers, for example, productivity improves with more coffee breaks, because workers share information that leads to better performance. Similarly, “social traders who aren’t isolated and aren’t in echo chambers,” perform best, he said. The point is to “encourage diversity of ideas and engagement.”

 

The Human Dynamics Lab at the MIT Media Laboratories pioneered the idea of a society enabled by Big Data. The Lab has developed technologies such as reality mining, which uses mobile phone data to extract patterns that predict future human behavior, as well as a `nervous system’ framework for dramatically more efficient transportation, health, energy, and financial systems.

 

Pentland’s latest research could be applied to what he calls, “data-driven societies.” Since geography influences behavior and patterns of communications, which creates “collective intelligence” in local groups,” city-scientist, for instance, may be able to predict the GDP of a city by looking at social-tie patterns. In turn, this might help city planners build environments that better match the habits of the local citizens.

 

Separately, McKinsey is conducting research into social intelligence. In its new report, McKinsey discusses social intelligence as a means of guiding better business decisions.

 

The report states that by tapping into social platforms, businesses can gather and harness employee knowledge.

Today, many people who have expert knowledge and shape perceptions about markets are freely exchanging data and viewpoints through social platforms. By identifying and engaging these players, employing potent Web-focused analytics to draw strategic meaning from social-media data, and channeling this information to people within the organization who need and want it, companies can develop a “social intelligence” that is forward looking, global in scope, and capable of playing out in real time.

This isn’t to suggest that “social” will entirely displace current methods of intelligence gathering. But it should emerge as a strong complement. As it does, social-intelligence literacy will become a critical asset for C-level executives and board members seeking the best possible basis for their decisions.

And in another report Capturing Business Value with Social Technologies, McKinsey conducted an in-depth analysis of four industry sectors that represent almost 20 percent of global sales.

[The analysis] suggests that social platforms can unlock $900 billion to $1.3 trillion in value in those sectors alone. Two-thirds of this value creation opportunity lies in improving communication and collaboration within and across enterprises. Frequently, these improvements will go well beyond the areas many companies have focused on to date in their social-media efforts: connecting with consumers, deriving customer insights for marketing and product development, and providing customer service.

 

Clearly, Pentland’s work supports McKinsey’s conclusion that: “Social technologies are destined to play a much larger role, not only in individual interactions, but also in how companies (and Pentland might add, societies), are organized and managed.”

 

Sandy Pentland is a member of this community. Comment on his work here.

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