Virtual Teams

Matrix Monday – colocation and collaboration, does distance matter?

In today’s Matrix Monday review (#MatrixMonday on Twitter) , Kevan Hall looks at Colocation and scientific collaboration, a Harvard Business School working paper by Boudreaux, Ganguli, Gaule, Guinan and Lakhani, August 2012. 

This working paper caught my eye as I have been working with a couple of R&D organizations recently and discussing the challenges of distributed development, in particular how to create the “serendipity” of spontaneous ideas and cross-fertilization when people are not colocated and rarely meet face to face.

The field experiment in the paper is conducted on a group of Harvard Medical School scientists who were located on different sites (“no more than a cab ride apart”). They were brought together in a common briefing, and then met in smaller subgroups to share their research interests.

They found that the people colocated in the same subgroup rooms were 70% more likely to go on to work together on areas of common interest.

They also found that even a short intervention to enable face to face contact can encourage cooperation to form.

They conclude that potential collaborators first need to find each other and then decide whether to collaborate, taking into account the costs and benefits of the collaboration. Easy access to the information required to do this is essential, and colocation helps with this.

There is some evidence that reduced cooperation costs (particularly through the web) have reduced the difficulty in cooperating across geography.

So what are the implications of this for global R&D or other idea generation initiatives?

The first is that collocation can help by making it easier to spark unexpected connections and by reducing the cost and complexity of cooperation.

But distributed development organizations are now the norm, and we also get significant advantages by tapping in to different markets and perspectives around the world. What do we do if colocation is not possible?

We need to create opportunities for interaction (either face to face or through technology) and to reduce the costs of subsequent cooperation.

We probably need some element of face to face interaction to enable the true “water cooler” moments of random connection that are easier for colocated groups.  Communities of practice or functional communities do sometimes meet face to face and we need to make sure that these events are structured to enable two way communication, rather than just broadcasting information and PowerPoint presentations to a passive audience.

Social media with its searchable profiles and simple opportunities for interaction and networking can be a useful tool for making it easier to identify colleagues with similar skills or complimentary interests.

To reduce the cost of cooperation we can use communication technology and social media.

We also need to develop the skills of working together remotely and of sharing relevant and spontaneous information without overloading our colleagues with irrelevant details and emails.

How does your organization manage distributed R&D and innovation?

2020 update – we have all earned that sometimes colocation is not an option and working models that assume face to face contact for everyone will be undeliverable for an extended period. We need to deliver our goals in a distributed environment. See an interactive graphic of our virtual teams learning path and module contents.

Download the paper: Colocation and Scientific Collaboration: Evidence from a Field Experiment. Kevin Boudreau, Ina Ganguli, Patrick Gaule. Eva Guinan, Karim Lakhani.

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