Got a problem? Throw some collaboration software at it.
It's a common strategy among today's managers: Organizations spend a lot of money on technology that enables employees to tackle problems collectively. Hence, the market is rife with connectivity tools and services such as Salesforce.com's Chatter, Microsoft's Yammer, and Jive Software's suite of namesake products. The global enterprise social software market is forecast to grow to $8.14 billion in 2019, according to MarketWatch, from $4.77 billion in 2014.
“When it comes to solving problems, connectedness is a double-edged sword”
Unfortunately, it turns out that inducing more collaboration may hinder the most important part of problem-solving: actually solving the problem. While connecting employees does increase the ability to gather facts during the early stages of tackling a problem, it also inhibits the ability to analyze those facts and find a solution, a team of Boston researchers reports.
"When it comes to solving problems, connectedness is a double-edged sword," says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ethan Bernstein, co-author of Facts and Figuring: An Experimental Investigation of Network Structure and Performance in Information and Solution Spaces, with Jesse Shore, an assistant professor at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, and David Lazer, a political science professor at Northeastern University. The paper appears in the journal Organization Science.
A High-stakes Whodunit Game
Previous academic research generally has focused separately on two aspects of problem-solving—either gathering facts or figuring out solutions. And the findings often have contradicted each other.
"Substantial recent research implies that clustering—the degree to which people with whom a person is connected are themselves connected to each other—can improve problem-solving performance by increasing coordination," the authors write in the "Facts and Figuring" paper. "By contrast, equally powerful research suggests that clustering can undermine performance by fostering an unproductive imbalance between exploration and exploitation, even for simple tasks."
Thus, Bernstein, Shore, and Lazer set out to figure out how collaborating could both help and hurt the problem-solving process. To pursue the efficacy of collaboration the research team developed a straightforward experiment that mirrored real-world problem-solving work.
Rather than start from scratch, they customized a platform called ELICIT (Experimental Laboratory for Investigating Collaboration, Information-sharing, and Trust), developed by the US Department of Defense's Command and Control Research Program. In the DoD's high-stakes "whodunit" game, players try to solve several aspects of an imaginary pending terrorist attack: the identity of the terrorists, the target of the attack, and where and when the attack would happen.
For the study, the researchers hired 417 participants to play the game. Players received two clues at the start of each round and were allowed to search for more clues once per minute; they had 25 minutes to solve the problem. (The experiment took place at Harvard Business School's Computer Lab for Experimental Research.)
Participants were randomly assigned to one of 70 16-person networks, some of which were more interconnected—or "clustered," in academic parlance—in terms of who could share information with whom during the game. "In the most-clustered conditions, people were connected in a clear team structure," Shore explains. "In the least clustered, nobody's partners were also partners with each other."
Participants received 60¢ for each minute (equivalent to $36 per hour) that they had the correct answer registered before the clock ran out—a considerable incentive, considering the majority of the participants were undergraduates who needed pocket money. "Generally speaking, these were students from northeastern universities, all of whom are relatively smart, so we're not talking about the average population," Bernstein says. "But actually, that's probably good for us, because the average population is not who would be hired to solve intelligence problems for the Department of Defense."
In terms of seeking out unique facts, the results showed that the most-clustered groups gathered 5 percent more information than the least-clustered groups, because clustering prevented network members from unknowingly conducting duplicative searches. "By being in a cluster, individuals tended to contribute more to the collective exploration through information space—not from more search but rather by being more coordinated in their search," the researchers write.
However, clustering also seemed to inhibit the breadth and number of answers that the players proposed. The least-connected networks came up with 17.5 percent more theories and solutions than did the most-connected networks. Less clustering also increased the likelihood of correct solutions in that those in very clustered positions were more likely to copy an incorrect theory from a neighbor than their less-clustered counterparts.
"We realized that the network structure seemed to have opposite effects for searching for information and searching for solutions," Shore says. "That was sort of the 'aha' moment."
Implications For The Workplace
The team's findings highlight the pros and cons of ever-present connectivity. On the one hand, tools like collaboration software can facilitate coordinated information gathering at both a local and a global scale. On the other hand, too much connectivity can lead to a premature consensus, to the detriment of organizations that aim to transform information into knowledge. Fostering effective problem-solving requires flexibility—flexible technology, flexible employees, and a flexible workspace.
"The optimal communication and collaboration structures change over time," Shore says. "To complicate matters, in longer-term projects you're going to be iterating between information gathering and solution generating. So the organizational structure needs to switch back and forth to facilitate that."
Bernstein notes that some firms do that already. "These results seem to make a lot of sense to organizations like The Boston Consulting Group or McKinsey & Company, which deliberately use very different structures for different functional stages of a project," he says. "Problem-solving looks different from other stages of a project in which the team is defining the problem, gathering data, or synthesizing results."
In terms of how to design corporate offices, the findings in "Facts and Figuring" provide rationale for the hot architectural trend of "agile" workspaces, including a mix of open floors, private spaces, and movable surfaces. "Architects have designed our workspaces flexibly so that we can change them and use them in different ways," Bernstein says. "But nobody has trained us on how to use them. We need to think about how to use our spaces wisely."
For knowledge-intensive companies, the findings highlight the need for enterprise software that addresses the disparate aspects of problem-solving.
"Another organizational response would be to design communications infrastructures that could somehow separate facts from figuring and adopt differently-structured communication networks for each category," the authors write. "In other words, rather than allow the march of technology to dictate organizational performance, it is possible to imagine technology being harnessed to achieve different performance goals. Even without the separation of facts and figuring, the results of this study are likely to be especially relevant for computer-mediated problem-solving because of the ease of manipulating the structure in which participants communicate."
For managers, the findings highlight the need to determine from the get-go whether a problem-solving task requires a search for facts or a search for answers, and then, if possible, tackle the problem accordingly—enforcing collaboration only where it makes sense. "That also means that their collaboration tools, and the policies that others set around them, need to have an off switch—to be used very selectively, but at the discretion of those at the front line of problem-solving," Bernstein says.
And for academics, the research provides a good jumping-off point for future studies about physical and virtual networking. In their next stage of research, the team plans to conduct several field studies in real-world office environments as well as further experimental studies on digital collaboration. In the meantime, "Facts and Figuring" helps to explain how knowledge works, both in the workplace and in the classroom.
"Students sometimes want you just to tell them the answer—like 'just give me the answer to leadership!'" says Bernstein, who co-teaches the required Leadership and Organizational Behavior course to first-year MBA students at HBS. "We have never done it that way. We want to give them the facts, and we do, but we want them to explore their own individual solutions based on those facts. Because ultimately, that's going to get the field of study further along—and get them further along—over the course of time. So that's how we teach. But it's just not the way we've designed organizations, historically."