Changing Places

When workers change departments for a short time–for example, shadowing another employee in a totally different part of the organization–it enhances the innovation potential of the entire organization. That’s because it results in more “weak links” throughout the organization’s social network. And from research, we know that creativity is more likely to result when information flows through these weak links–because it brings together diverse types of knowledge into surprising new combinations.

Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal* describes many companies that are successfully using this strategy:

To help workers sharpen their skills, stay motivated and identify new roles they might aim for in the future. Moreover, they help address a challenge that many companies are facing: how to better foster collaboration across different specialties and regions.

An Intel, employees can find temporary assignments by searching an internal database. This program just launched last March, and already 1,300 positions have been filled. Other companies finding success with this approach include Virgin America and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

My book Group Genius explains why this works: Because it helps resolve the challenge of “knowledge management.” How do you get information moving through the organization effectively, particularly across organizational boundaries? In addition to this “shadowing” technique, other knowledge management techniques help accomplish the same goal:

  • “Idea labs” that bring cross-disciplinary teams together for one or two weeks
  • Job descriptions that are broad, allowing each employee to cross multiple areas
  • More frequent reassignment of staff

Research shows that all of these methods help to diffuse tacit knowledge–the kind of knowledge that’s hard to capture in computerized knowledge management systems, or in formal documents. And research shows that it’s this tacit knowledge that, more often than not, results in innovation.

*Lauren Weber and Leslie Kwoh, “Co-workers change places.” Wall Street Journal, Tuesday February 21, 2012, p. B8.

The Book Everyone is Talking About

A quick follow-up to my critical post about Susan Cain’s New York Times article:
Am I the only person who finds it ironic that the big newspaper ad for her book has this text and the cover image?

“The Instant New York Times Bestseller Everyone Is Talking About”

Quiet book cover

And at the bottom of the ad, I’m not sure if this is irony or just internally contradictory: the text announces that Cain’s New York Times article is the #1 most emailed NY Times Op-ed. Apparently in addition to talking a lot, introverts have lots of friends, too.

If you define “introversion” so broadly that it includes people who talk a lot and have lots of friends, then how meaningful is that definition, really?

The Social Networks of Emily Dickinson, Paul Gauguin, and Charlotte Bronte

I just read a fascinating article* by Professor Katherine Giuffre, of Colorado College, that asks the question: Do social networks contribute to creativity? Previous research is pretty compelling: social networks and collaboration contribute to greater creativity. But as Giuffre points out, no one has compared creative and non-creative periods during the lifetime of a single person. As she puts it:

Over the course of a person’s lifetime, there are some moments of creativity and other periods where that same person is not as creative. If we then trace the pattern of social relations over the course of a lifetime, comparing periods of much creative production with periods of no or very little creative production, we have a way of examining the correlation between a person’s social relations and his or her creative output. (p. 824)

Emily Dickinson, Paul Gauguin, and Charlotte Bronte were legendary loners, famous for seeking out solitude, far from the cafes and parlors of the big cities. So why were these three creators chosen? Basically, if you could show that even these famous loners benefited from collaboration, you could put the nail in the coffin of the “lone genius” hypothesis:

Given the contention that creativity is the product not of lonely recluses locked away in their garrets, but of individuals enmeshed in social structures, the most compelling cases to examine will be those of precisely the loneliest of recluses because they are the cases most unfavorable to the hypothesis.

So here’s what she did with these three famous creators: She compared their level of correspondence during creative and non-creative periods. For all three of these famous recluses, their letters provide an unusually accurate representation of their social networks, because they all lived and worked primarily alone and rarely had face-to-face creative encounters.

Past research suggests that creativity would increase when (1) a person’s social network is dense, but not so dense that everyone thinks the same; (2) a person has easy access to a diverse range of other people; (3) a person is linked into many different types of groups. And here’s what she found.

During periods of high creativity, the density of their social network is about .475, higher than during uncreative periods–meaning that the creator’s social network draws together and interacts more frequently. In other words, more collaboration is associated with greater creativity.

She concludes:

It was not when the artists were alone…that they were most creative, but when they were attached to others in a more moderate way and when those others were close to each other, although, again, not so close as to form one cohesive group. (p. 836)

When Giuffre actually read the content of the letters, she found ample confirmation of creative interaction: “The artists actively solicited support and critical feedback for their endeavors from others in their networks” (p. 838).

The bottom line: These famous loners were not as isolated as the myths would have it. Communication, collaboration, and social networks contribute to creativity. 

*Giuffre, Katherine. (2010). Half the right people: Network density and creativity. Culture Unbound, 2: 819-846.

Computing Education for the 21st Century

Today and tomorrow (Feb 2-3, 2012) I’m in Washington DC at a meeting hosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The meeting brings together researchers from around the country who’ve received funding from an NSF program to improve computing education.

What’s exciting is the broad range of research going on here: from middle school, to high school, to college, educators are working hard to figure out how to better teach computer science concepts. One important goal is to encourage more of our talented youth to choose computer degrees and careers, as a valued national economic strategy. A second goal is to improve computational literacy for everyone, regardless of their career path–after all, computer technology is everywhere (from our mobile phones to our microwaves, not to mention our personal computers, tablets, and e-readers).

I’m excited to be here because it’s a diverse and interdisciplinary group. There are professors of education, who know about psychology and how people learn. I’m happy to see many familiar faces from my colleagues in the learning sciences, such as Mitch Resnick, Uri Wilensky, Yasmin Kafai, and Kylie Pepper. But most of the researchers here are in departments of computer science, educators working hard to enhance their profession.

I’m here to represent a project I worked on at Washington University, to transform our undergraduate computer science major away from lecture classes and towards a more active style of learning, by using a “studio model” based on the types of group projects you might find in a design school, or an architecture school. It ties in perfectly with my latest research project, a study of teaching and learning at two different professional schools of art and design (SCAD and Washington University).

When I first saw how many people are here–about 100–my reaction was “This represents a lot of tax dollars at work!” After all, the taxpayers are paying for everything we’re doing here. I believe this is an important national goal, and I’m honored to be a part of this annual meeting.