A problem shared is a problem solved. Not necessarily!

In a recent blog post I questioned whether organisations were looking at the balance between making decisions collaboratively and individual task-based work. I have also commented on IBM research that suggests the smaller someone’s online network size in an organisation the more highly assessed they were by colleagues. A third element of collaborative working has been explored by Jesse Shore, Ethan Bernstein, and David Lazer at the Harvard Business School and they have reported on their project in a 32 page Working Paper published in March 2014.

They set up a laboratory-based study in which they randomly assigned individuals to 70 sixteen-person organizations—some more clustered than others—and asked each organization to solve a complex problem: divine the who, what, where, and when of an impending terrorist attack. They used the ELICIT  Experimental Laboratory for Investigating Collaboration, Information-sharing, and Trust application developed by the US Department of Defence. Using this application individuals could search for information, share information with each other, and share theories about the solutions, while the platform tracked all behaviour. The outcome was that ‘connectedness’ had different effects on the “facts” and “figuring” stages of problem solving. Search for information (facts) was, indeed, more efficient the more connected the organization. But performance in interpreting the information (figuring) to develop solutions was undermined by too much connectedness.

In the view of the authors the research project suggests that collaboration has the power to allow members of a network to generate more non-redundant information, but it also has the power to discourage theoretical exploration. Until an organisation knows whether a problem-solving task involves searching for facts or searching for answers, it is impossible to predict the influence of clustering on organizational performance.

As with any laboratory-based project extrapolating the results to a generic organisation model is fraught with problems. Nevertheless to me the conclusions again highlight the requirements to understand what the objective is of a particular act of collaboration, manage the process of collaboration from inception to closure and ensure that there is an appropriate level of assessment of the processes of collaboration.

Martin White