Productivity, innovation, creativity and telecommuting

As we have seen in the news lately there seems to be a fad in Silicon Valley based on the idea, particularly for companies that are currently in trouble, that togetherness is an absolute requirement for rescuing the company from a fate worse than death. That is, according to this theory, productivity, innovation and creativity only happen in groups of people constantly engaged in face-to-face communication. So if the company can only get all of its people collocated as much as possible great things will automatically happen.

I have mentioned in previous blogs that I don’t believe this theory, based both on my personal experience and survey evidence we have collected over the years. I think that these companies might better spend their time improving their management capabilities rather than herding all their employees into some mental gymnasium. Let me explain this with my own assumptions. First it is the case that some forms of innovation are enhanced by fairly frequent communication between the people doing the innovation. For example, if a new product needs to be improved, such as by increasing its performance or changing its appearance, then some group activity in product polishing may well increase the rate of improvement. On the other hand, I am not at all convinced that creativity as such arises from group interaction. I have more often had creative experiences on my own or through interaction with people completely outside my normal working group than I have by intragroup interaction.

I recently came across an article by Alex “Sandy” Pentland in the October 2013 Scientific American that corroborates my own experience. The author, an MIT researcher, is heavily into “big data”. As part of his research he and his students have analyzed information flow within large organizations (using generally the same kind of communications audit that we use as part of our telecommuter training). One of the key findings of this group is summarized in the following quote from the article.

Two mathematical patterns provide evidence for healthy idea flow. The first is engagement, which we define as the proportion of possible person to person exchanges within a workgroup that regularly occur. The relationship between engagement and productivity is simple: high levels of engagement predict high group productivity, almost no matter what that group is working on or what kinds of personalities its members have. The second factor is exploration — a mathematical measure of the extent to which the members of the group bring in new ideas from outside. Exploration is a good predictor of both innovation and creative output.

The article doesn’t mention whether the measured idea flow involved only face-to-face interaction. As I have often stated I think that face-to-face interaction is important in situations of uncertainty where the information bandwidth needs to be as high as possible. Face-to-face is definitely a richer form of communication than emailing and possibly better than live video for some situations. But in most real business situations face-to-face interaction can be seriously overdone, to the point where it acts to stifle, rather than encourage productivity, innovation and creativity. Particularly creativity. Groupthink resulting from high levels of face-to-face interaction may well get some things done faster but not necessarily better. Note Pentland’s emphasis on “new ideas from outside” as the key to exploration. If all you (and they) do is talk to the same folks then it’s likely that creativity will run dry shortly. Here’s another quote from Pentland:

We have also found that an oscillating pattern of exploration and group engagement — in which people engage the group, then go find new information [elsewhere], bring it back, then repeat the process — is consistently associated with greater creative output.

That is, togetherness interspersed with exploration is the key. This is why properly managed telecommuting/telework works so well. The telecommuting part of the effort focuses on the exploration (thinking out the problem from new angles) phase while the engagement part takes place in a face-to-face environment either in the main office or elsewhere. One without the other is less productive. This is also why we recommend that most, but not all, telecommuters also need occasional office time to mind-meld with their work teams. The frequency of “occasional” depends on the situation.

So let’s just hope that the trend in Silicon Valley is not toward a 21st century form of company towns populated by neo-borgs.

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