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Electrodes on a person's forehead. (Keith Brofsky/Photodisc)
Electrodes on a person's forehead. (Keith Brofsky/Photodisc)

How does the Internet affect our brains? Add to ...

Electrocardiograms and electroencephalograms are not the kind of research devices you'd expect to find at a business school. But a new lab to be housed at HEC Montréal is expected to be among the first in Canadian business schools to include a broad array of such tools.

The Tech3Lab lab will also include eye-tracking devices and equipment to measure electrodermal activity (like sweaty palms) that other research fields, such as psychology, have been using for some time, says Pierre-Majorique Léger, professor of information technologies at HEC. It will open up a new frontier for business research, he says. "It's very exciting. It's a whole new ballgame."

Dr. Léger and Sylvain Sénécal, a marketing professor at HEC, received a $600,000 grant from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Quebec government to set up the Tech3Lab, which will be used to conduct research into individual and group decision-making processes involving information technologies. The lab is expected to be ready early next year.

It will consist of four rooms: two for running experiments and two for observation. "What we will do is observe consumers or employees of firms or students interacting with computers," Dr. Sénécal explains.

Dr. Sénécal's work involves assessing decision-making by consumers while using the Internet, such as monitoring consumer reactions to company websites while shopping online. Research participants may be asked to perform certain tasks on a website while researchers observe their behaviours and responses using eye-tracking equipment, EEGs, ECGs and other tools. By doing so, researchers will be able to identify precisely what participants are looking at on screen, whether they are distracted by the ads, and whether they are able to stay on task, Dr. Sénécal explains. "Then we can pinpoint a little more precisely what is going on in their mind," he says.

This, he adds, will lead to a better understanding of how effective a company's website is. Organizations can use the information to fine tune their online marketing practices and strategies. Until recently, researchers in this field have largely depended on questionnaires and other self-assessment tools, which are prone to bias, Dr. Sénécal says.

Dr. Léger will use the lab to monitor collaboration among groups of MBA students and employees of organizations while they are using Enterprise Research Planning, or ERP, software, a business application that provides managers of large organizations with information about sales, inventories and other data used to make business decisions.

Dr. Léger and his colleagues at HEC have previously developed a computer simulation game that is used to teach students how to run a business while using ERP software. Teams of students use the simulation software and the real-life ERP to run a virtual company. They use it to send and receive orders, and to interact with the company's fictitious customers and suppliers. By doing so they are learning how to operate ERP software while at the same time learning how to run a company, Dr. Léger explains. The simulation software can also be used to train employees of a large organization to use ERP software.

The new lab equipment will enable Dr. Léger and his colleagues to build on their past work by allowing them to monitor the emotional responses of students and employees and to better gauge their level of emotional engagement as they go about making business decisions and solving complex problems.

"In an organization there is a lot to learn about how you can get people to better collaborate in the business process," he says. The new lab will help researchers discover how groups of students and employees can become more efficient at using business data and collaborating.

"These tools will enable us to better understand the human-computer interaction," he explains. "The objective is to help people make better business decisions," either by changing the type of computer interface they use, the way they collaborate or by improving training methods, he says. "In the end, this is a benefit for Canadian companies and our MBA students [and can help]make them better managers."

The lab also opens up the possibility of HEC partnering with Montreal's information technologies and gaming industries, which already use these tools, Dr. Léger says. And it will also be used to train graduate students to use the equipment, skills that are increasingly in demand by companies.

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