Does bringing the best minds together really work?

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Does bringing the best minds together really work?

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This week has seen the English football coach select the players he believes will bring glory to the nation at the upcoming World Cup in Brazil.  The event has prompted many an amateur coach to preempt the announcement by choosing their own best teams and formations.  For many, this often seems to involve putting the best players together, and hoping they gel into a productive unit.  The rationale no doubt suggests that the best players will find a way of bringing the best out of one another, producing the kind of performances that will drive the team to success.

The same kind of thinking is often visible in the professional world, from both an organizational and an individual perspective.  Organizations have been striving to attract the finest talent, whilst there is a certain cachet involved in working for the biggest and brightest names in an industry.

The feeling is that being around the smartest people can bring forth a hive of collaboration and innovation, as amazing ideas and thoughts bounce off of one another.  It’s a plausible theory, and one that many in the social business world propagate.  Alas, a new study published by Northeastern University suggests it might not be altogether true.

The study explored the academic world of the physics community, and explored the careers of physicists who began working between 1950 and 1980, before tracking their careers up until 2012.  They ranked the role the institution the academics worked at played in their collaborative potential by counting the number of citations each institution’s papers received within five years of publication.

By monitoring both the affiliations of individual scientists, and by counting their citations in a similar way, the researchers believe they can figure out whether the scientist upgrading to a higher ranking university had an impact upon their productivity and success.

After analysing some 2,700 or so careers, the researchers found that this did not occur.  Despite the number of career moves undertaken by scientists being very low (once or twice per career), the study found little evidence that moving to a higher ranking university had any impact upon their output.

The suggestion is therefore, that the high ranking university had little impact, or added little value if you will, to the output of their employees.  Given how the collaboration industry is urging organizations to encourage the serendipitous collaborations between employees to tap into all of that wisdom and help one another get the most value from each employee, this finding is indeed cause for concern.

Of course, that isn’t to say that collaboration isn’t effective, merely that this study seems to suggest that there is no guarantee that clustering the best minds close to one another will naturally cause magic to occur.  It should also be said, that the paper found that the more prestigious universities afforded the scientists greater bang for their buck, in the sense that their papers tended to generate greater numbers of citations, but their productivity was largely unmoved.

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