Friday, October 19, 2007

A life coach in your pocket

Imagine your life and work so tightly entwined you lose track of the boundaries and ... imagine a digital device that keeps track of your behaviour patterns whatever next? Its ironic to actually call this prototype device a personal coach when in fact the very things it prompts you to do are commonsense. Mmm this is a gadget that works well for medical situations but in everyday life, what are the benefits and at what cost do we want to stop thinking for ourselves?

“Imagine a world where a device in your pocket lets you know whether you are managing your time well, talking too much on a sales call, or getting enough sleep.”

And imagine that device being used to deliver on-the-job learning at the point of need — helping to develop employees by allowing them to set specific goals, then giving them objective measures of whether their behaviour patterns match the goals they've set.

Sounds like science fiction? As is often the case these days, the idea is closer to reality than you think. Accenture Technology Labs has developed a prototype Mobile Personal Services Platform (MPSP), which makes it possible to develop applications that can transform a mobile phone into a customised personal coach.

This platform has been enabled by two technological trends: the dramatic increase in the capabilities of mobile smartphones, and the emergence of small, wearable sensors that can be used with these devices to provide data about a user's body, behaviour and physical environment. Our prototype software uses these technologies to give people personalised feedback and advice on everything from nutrition to the art of conversation.

Beyond the workplace

This technology is still some way from coming to market. But when it does, it will have important implications for workplace training and personal self-improvement. Consider how it could provide the coaching that a diabetic might need on the diet and medication regime needed to manage the disease, and even guide that person to the closest (or cheapest) chemist if their medication is running low. The scenarios for which MPSP will enable content providers to deliver next-generation personal services to mobile phones are as varied as the sections in a book store.

A word in your ear
The Palo Alto labs team has been exploring the possible applications of this technology both in the workplace and beyond. The first prototype coaching module we developed is focused on making people more effective in professional conversations, such as team meetings, sales calls or negotiation sessions. Software running on the phone collects voice streams and location data. Wireless connections send the data from the participant's phone to a server that integrates and analyses the data, fusing information from various devices to create a meaningful picture of the conversation.

The system then matches the observed behaviour against performance goals in near real-time, and makes suggestions about how to better achieve behavioural targets. These suggestions can then be relayed to the user, either on the phone's screen or by whispering advice into the user's headset, depending on the user's preferences.

The prototype also generates more detailed feedback for later review on a computer — meaning that a salesperson could sit down at his PC at the end of the day and review his performance, including getting detailed analyses of trends and correlations across all his meetings. For example, it might show that he was more effective in meetings held early in the day, but tended to drone on or interrupt too much in the afternoon.

Sensitive and omnipresent
The mobile phone has ceased to be just a phone. MPSP is part of the next wave of mobility innovation, which will exploit the mobile device as a means to deliver a wide array of innovative services enabled by its constant presence on your body, and its growing awareness of your physical environment. This will enable companies to serve their customers better, help employees improve their professional effectiveness, and allow consumers to adjust their behaviour to achieve personal objectives.

It will also turn the mobile device — which has evolved into a powerful wearable computer complete with ever more sophisticated wireless sensors — into a new type of service channel, personalised to the immediate context and needs.

With the advent of the new generation of mobile platforms and applications, the challenge now is to explore how this can improve the way we work and live; for example, by enabling people to develop a better understanding of their own behaviour, they can begin to improve their personal and professional effectiveness.

As a result, these services could take human performance enhancement to a new level. Traditional training teaches the right thing to do — and then hopes that the trainee executes it correctly (the "say and pray" technique). In contrast, the personal performance coach can measure behaviour against goals, and then alert the user when the execution is veering off course. The technology will eventually go beyond tracking simple conversation patterns, to helping users see subtler cross-contextual issues. For example, it might help a user realise his behaviour becomes less effective when he skips lunch, or that he interrupts people less after a good night's sleep.

Taking mobility further
We can foresee companies in a wide variety of industries exploiting the enhanced awareness of the body, behaviour and physical environment afforded by these devices, and using it to help their employees improve their personal performance or lifestyles. For example, a healthcare company might offer a service that would help someone detect if they were eating healthily, meeting exercise goals they'd set for themselves or suffering from higher blood pressure than normal, and would then make real-time suggestions to address the problem.

The next step for us is to help content providers develop applications, and to provide the necessary back-end data services.

As technologies such as MPSP mature, they will help companies improve productivity, operate more intelligently and capture new market opportunities. But perhaps their greatest impact will be at the individual level, by helping people to become more effective — whether they are trying to develop into more successful negotiators or enjoy happier, healthier lives.

Source: Alex Kass is a researcher at Accenture Technology Laboratories, California.

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