Collaborate, but only
intermittently, says new study
August 14, 2018
than a decade after the introduction of the first smartphone, we are
now awash in always-on technologies--email, IM, social media, Slack,
Yammer, and so on. All that connectivity means we are constantly
sharing our ideas, knowledge, thinking, and answers. Surely that
"wisdom of the crowd" is good for problem solving at work, right?
New research by Harvard Business School associate professor Ethan
Bernstein and colleagues, to be published online next week in
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
of America (PNAS), suggests that "always on" may not be always
effective. "Intermittently on" might, instead, be better for complex
In their study the three researchers--Bernstein, Assistant Professor
Jesse Shore from the Questrom School of Business at Boston
University, and Professor David Lazer from Northeastern
University--put together and studied the results of a number of
three-person groups performing a complex problem-solving task. The
members of one set of groups never interacted with each other,
solving the problem in complete isolation; members of another set of
groups constantly interacted with each other, as we do when equipped
with always-on technologies; and a third set of groups interacted
From prior research, the researchers anticipated that the groups in
which members never interacted would be the most creative, coming up
with the largest number of unique solutions--including some of the
best and some of the worst--representing a high level of variation
that sprang from their working alone. In short, they expected the
isolated individuals to produce a few fantastic solutions but have,
as a group, a low average quality of solution (due to the
variation). That proved to be the case.
The researchers also anticipated that the groups that constantly
interacted would produce a higher average quality of solution, but
that they would fail to find the very best solutions as often. In
short, they expected the constantly interacting groups to be less
variable but at the cost of their best solutions being more
mediocre. That proved to be the case as well.
But here's where the researchers found something completely new.
Groups that interacted only intermittently preserved the best of
both worlds (rather than succumbing to the worst). Even though the
groups interacted only intermittently, they had an average quality
of solution that was nearly identical to those groups that
interacted constantly. And yet, by interacting only intermittently,
these groups also preserved enough variation to find some of the
best solutions, too.
Perhaps the most interesting result was that the higher performers
were able to get even better by learning from the low performers
only in the intermittent condition. When high performers interacted
with low performers constantly, there was little to learn from them,
because low performers mostly just copied high performers'
solutions, and high performers likely ignored them. But when high
performers interacted with low performers only intermittently, they
were able to learn something from them that helped them achieve even
greater solutions to the problem.
Bernstein and his co-authors see a number of workplace implications
for these findings, including the advantages of alternating
independent efforts with group work over a period of time to get
optimal benefits. In some ways, that's how work has been done in
organizations--with individuals working alone, then coming together
in a meeting, then returning to work alone, etc. But those cycles
are being broken by the constant advancement of technology. "As we
replace those sorts of intermittent cycles with always-on
technologies, we might be diminishing our capacity to solve problems
well," Bernstein notes.
researchers see parallels in a number of trends in organizations
today. Agile approaches to teamwork have some of this intermittent
characteristic, given that they are organized into "sprints,"
gatherings of people that focus on a particular problem and last
only a short time. Similarly, hackathons are increasingly designed
to provide, through their schedules, some intermittency of
In addition, organizations known for their excellence in creativity
and brainstorming ideas, like IDEO, often use a process that has
intermittency built in. Even open offices, a concept about which
Bernstein has recently completed research, often have some group
spaces (booths, meeting rooms) and individual spaces (phone booths,
pods) in which interaction can be paused for a period of time.
Given their findings in this study, the researchers conclude that
these design-based tools for achieving intermittent rather than
constant interaction may be even more important for organizational
productivity and performance than previously thought. And they warn
that the march towards always-on technology--and more and more
digital collaboration tools at work--should not disturb the
intermittent isolation that those practices bring, lest it keep
groups from achieving their best collective performance in solving