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When digital tools get in the way of innovation


There is a sense in much of the social business movement that the various digital tools and enterprise social networks that vendors sell are the panacea for great collaboration.  Indeed, there is almost a perception that collaboration can’t occur unless you’re using these tools.

Of course, that isn’t the case, and a recent paper published by researchers from a team of Boston based universities highlights this fact only too well.

The research asked participants to play a game, in which they would be asked to sit at a computer and use various clues and information to figure out the details of an upcoming terrorist attack.  They’d have to figure out who was planning the attack, where it would be, when it would occur and what the attack would entail.

The 400+ participants could all collaborate with one another, sharing information on clues and possible solutions to the attack.  The game was played over 1,100 times, with the researchers able to gain a good insight into the kind of network structures that seemed to work best.

For instance, I wrote earlier this month about some research from MIT showing that team performance was significantly boosted when team members were strongly connected to one another.  Would the same be the case here?

Well, it seems the results are mixed.  The research found that when we’re looking for information, having a tightly clustered network is a good thing.  When we’re looking for solutions however, a tight network can create groupthink and actually reduce our exploration.

In looking for unique facts or clues, clustering helped since members of the dense communications networks effectively split up the work and redundant facts were quickly weeded out, making them five percent more efficient. But the number of unique theories or solutions was 17.5 percent higher among subjects who were not densely connected. Clustering reduced the diversity of ideas.

It highlights the importance of understanding when to be connected to your network, and when not to be.  The research shows a clear boost from connectivity when we’re hunting for information, but that connectivity is actually detrimental when we’re looking for ideas.

Obviously this was just one experiment conducted in a lab setting, but it does nonetheless provide an interesting line of thought for those of us looking to boost both collaboration and innovation in the workplace.  With knowledge sharing, the various collaboration tools vendors have introduced to the workplace may be very effective, but if you want to innovate then having people working independently may well be the best approach (ala open innovation).

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