• 04 Feb 2014
  • Working Paper

From Crowds to Collaborators: Initiating Effort and Catalyzing Interactions Among Online Creative Workers

by Kevin J. Boudreau, Patrick Gaule, Karim R. Lakhani, Christoph Riedl & Anita Williams Woolley

Executive Summary — Online "organizations" are becoming a major engine for knowledge development in a variety of domains such as Wikipedia and open source software development. Many online platforms involve collaboration and coordination among members to reach common goals. In this sense, they are collaborative communities. This paper asks: What factors most inspire online teams to begin to collaborate and to do so creatively and effectively? The authors analyze a data set of 260 individuals randomly assigned to 52 teams tasked with developing working solutions to a complex innovation problem over 10 days, with varying cash incentives. Findings showed that although cash incentives stimulated a significant boost of effort per se, cash incentives did not transform the nature of the work process or affect the level of collaboration. In addition, at a basic yet striking level, the likelihood that an individual chooses to participate depended on whether teammates were themselves active. Moreover, communications among teammates led to more communications, and communications among teammates also stimulated greater continuous levels of effort. Overall, the study sheds light on how perspectives on incentives, predominant in economics, and perspectives on social processes and interactions, predominant in research on organizational behavior and teams, can be better understood. Key concepts include:

  • An individual's likelihood of being active in online collaboration increases by about 41 percent with each additional active teammate.
  • Management could provide communications channels to make the efforts of other members more visible. This is important in the design of systems for online work as it helps members to confirm that others are actively contributing.

Author Abstract

Online collaborative platforms have emerged as a complementary approach to traditional organizations for coordinating the collective efforts of creative workers. However, it is surprising that they result in any productive output as individuals often work without direct monetary incentives while collaborating with unknown others. In this paper, we distinguish the conditions necessary for eliciting effort from those affecting the quality of interdependent teamwork. We consider the role of incentives versus social processes in catalyzing collaboration. We test our hypotheses using a unique data set of 260 individuals randomly assigned to 52 teams tasked with developing working solutions to a complex innovation problem over 10 days, with varying monetary incentives. We find that levels of effort are driven by cash incentives and the presence of other interacting teammates. The level of collaboration, by contrast, was not sensitive to cash incentives. Instead, individuals increased their communication if teammates were also actively participating. Additionally, team performance is uniquely driven by the level of emergent interdependence, as indexed by the diversity of topics discussed and the temporal coordination of activity in short focused time periods. Our results contribute to the literature on how alternative organizational forms can be designed to solve complex innovation tasks.

Paper Information