With an exponential increase in the ability to gather, store, access and analyse data, our societies have entered a new phase of “self-expression”, feedbacks, and decision making capabilities. From dearth to an unending torrent of data, the march has been exceedingly swift. In fact we are submerged in digital networks, consuming and creating data at the same time. Our digital signatures routinely capture our lives. This ever multiplying heap of resource when mined in imaginative ways can transform our understanding of ourselves, our social groupings, and our society.

Often, genius lies in taking an impossible problem and making it almost trivial. This makes the implications of new understanding both blindingly obvious and easily actionable. It is with this zeal that Alex Pentland and his Human Dynamics research group at the MIT Media Laboratory are tackling issues of individual and team effectiveness. Executives and management theorists have for long lurched in the dark as they could only conjecture about such “soft” dimensions. However, the scientific, data driven approach of the Human Dynamics group has brought remarkable precision to our understanding of these puzzling issues.

The use of pervasive sensors allows studying people in real situations, along with the dynamic flow of their “lived” experiences. This paves the way for a lot of reliable and directly, predictive relationships. The real beauty, however, lies in that only a handful of common, social signals can help predict outcomes in a wide array of settings. For instance, individual effectiveness and group performance can be assessed with reasonable precision by capturing individual behaviours such as the amount of face-to-face interaction, speaking patterns, and non-linguistic social signals.

Given our evolutionary origins, it should not be surprising that a lot of social influence takes place non-verbally. Without any of our linguistic capabilities, primates – our evolutionary cousins – lead very organised and sophisticated social lives. From primate tribes to innovation teams, the key to high performance is more in the manner of communication than in the “content” of exchanges. For example, peer group cohesion is a central predictor of productivity. Hence, social time impacts team performance quite critically. By measuring face-to-face interactions among Bank of America call-centre workers, Pentland and his team helped produce dramatic results. Changing the coffee break structure so that everyone took the break at the same time led to more knowledge sharing, faster calls, and happy customers. In tangible terms this led to 30 percent increased engagement, 20 percent decreased stress, and $15 million per year of savings.

Without needing to capture the specific content or the logic and meaning of exchanges in interactions, the Human Dynamics group has been able to foretell which team will win a business plan contest and the financial results that would be achieved by teams making investments. All this based solely on the data collected from initial interactions and negotiations and without any knowledge of the actual content of the exchanges. The Human Dynamics group also asserts that 35 percent of the variation in a team’s performance can be attributed simply to the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members. Also, they insist, that the “right” number of exchanges in a team is a dozen per working hour. Clearly soft facets of human interactions have never before had such certainty of hard numbers.

In effect, understanding human behaviour provides the ability to shape it. Big data derives its power from information and insights about people’s real behaviour as against their masked, censured selves. The next frontier is to use our digital signatures to find connections that work and use them to design and build better systems.