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Collaboration With Co-Workers Hampers Creative Solutions to Problems, Study Finds

23 OCTOBER 2015

Thanks to technological advancements and the unshakeable belief that working together is the key to helping everyone perform better, contemporary office life is full of collaboration and networking: meetings, virtual workspaces, team messaging, simultaneous document editing, cloud storage, video calls, you name it.


While there’s likely hundreds, if not thousands, of management studies backing up the merits of this way of working, at least one new paper says we’ve got it the wrong way around. Researchers in the US say a high degree of connectedness between co-workers is a good thing when it comes to finding information, but ultimately bad for coming up with creative solutions to problems.

For their experiment, the researchers gathered 400 undergraduate students to participate in a 25-minute ‘whodunit’ game designed around a terrorism scenario. Sixteen groups were assembled, ranging from ‘highly clustered’ to ‘minimally clustered’.

How did it go? Well, in terms of pure knowledge discovery, among a team of networked participants with a common goal, collaboration does appear to have its benefits. The highly clustered networks in the experiment were 5 percent more effective in searching for facts and clues in the game.

“The clustered network was more coordinated at the group level in finding unique information,” said one of the researchers, Jesse Shore. “There is something sort of natural to that. If you can observe what everyone in the team is doing, you’re not going to reproduce their work. You’ll say ‘I should work on something different, we’ll cover more territory.’”

But while the ‘minimally clustered’ groups teased out less facts and clues than their more connected peers, they generated 17.5 percent more unique theories or solutions in the fictional terrorist hunt. It seems that, despite having more information at their fingertips, networked individuals actually end up being less productive than workers who are given some alone time.

“When it comes to interpreting that information to come up with conclusions, coordinating might not necessarily be the best thing. If I see you’ve adopted a solution, I might simply copy yours,” said Shore. “When more than one of your neighbours has adopted a solution, you see what’s known as social proof: ‘Everyone thinks this, so it must be true.’”

According to Shore, the fact that networking has its downsides in addition to benefits means workplaces should be careful about rushing headlong into information technology as a boon to productivity. Citing Wikipedia as an example, Shore says it’s an amazing repository of diverse information – but if it ends up becoming the go-to default resource for everybody, does it effectively lead people to make narrower individual conclusions?

“We’re adopting communications technologies at an extremely rapid rate, in a sort of breathless way,” Shore said. “It can help us in many ways. It can also end up suppressing the diversity of experiences we have, the diversity of ways we understand information.”

The findings are published in Organization Science.