Strategy Sep 6, 2017

The Sci­ence Behind the Grow­ing Impor­tance of Collaboration

Plus, ideas for design­ing spaces that encour­age employ­ees to team up in unique ways.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research and insights of

Benjamin F. Jones

Col­lab­o­ra­tion is a hot buzz­word in the busi­ness world. And with good rea­son. Work­ing with peo­ple who have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives or areas of exper­tise can result in bet­ter ideas and outcomes. 

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But col­lab­o­ra­tion does not always just hap­pen. Some­times it needs a lit­tle nudge. 

Kellogg’s Ben­jamin Jones, a strat­e­gy pro­fes­sor at the Kel­logg School, dis­cuss­es why col­lab­o­ra­tion is so impor­tant today — and how orga­ni­za­tions can design their build­ings and com­mon spaces to encour­age it. 

Niche Knowl­edge

Why is col­lab­o­ra­tion necessary? 

Part of the answer — and a grow­ing part, accord­ing to Jones’s research—is that our indi­vid­ual knowl­edge base is becom­ing more and more specialized. 

There’s more and more to know in the world, and you can only have so much in your head,” he says. So the share of stuff you know as an indi­vid­ual is declin­ing in any field.” 

Jones points to the Wright Broth­ers as an exam­ple. In 1903, two men designed and flew an air­plane. Today, a Boe­ing 787 has dozens of spe­cial­ists work­ing on the engines alone. Then there are the con­trols, the hydraulics, the air­frame itself. 

There’s just so much going on in design­ing, build­ing, and fly­ing that plane,” Jones says. There is an incred­i­ble range of spe­cial­ized skills.” 

Mean­ing, you are unlike­ly to build a plane today as an avi­a­tion gen­er­al­ist. It is the col­lab­o­ra­tion among all those spe­cial­ists that gets it off the ground. And the same goes for teams at oth­er fac­to­ries or offices. 

Team­ing Up

This increas­ing spe­cial­iza­tion of skills means that you need big­ger and big­ger groups, with more and more spe­cial­ists, in order to be successful. 

Over time, this is an ongo­ing, nev­er-end­ing phe­nom­e­non of increased spe­cial­iza­tion, which is ever increas­ing the demand for col­lab­o­ra­tion,” Jones says.

Jones, along with Bri­an Uzzi, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School, demon­strat­ed this in research that focused on the world of aca­d­e­m­ic publishing. 

They exam­ined 30 years’ worth of sci­en­tif­ic papers — more than 19 mil­lion over­all — and found that col­lab­o­ra­tion among sci­en­tists and across research insti­tu­tions grew steadi­ly from the 1950s on. 

There’s more and more to know in the world, and you can only have so much in your head. So the share of stuff you know as an indi­vid­ual is declin­ing in any field.” 

And it was not just quan­ti­ty, but qual­i­ty that was impact­ed, the researchers found. By iden­ti­fy­ing the high­est-impact, game-chang­ing papers — as mea­sured by how often they were cit­ed by fel­low sci­en­tists — Jones and Uzzi found that col­lab­o­ra­tion pro­vides a sig­nif­i­cant boost. 

In every­thing, teams beat solo,” Jones says. In the 1950s and 60s, in lots of fields, solo beat teams. It’s flipped. Now teams always have a high­er home-run prob­a­bil­i­ty than solo.” 

Adding Just Enough Spice

But sim­ply adding more and more peo­ple to a team does not guar­an­tee suc­cess. There is an art to col­lab­o­ra­tion, too. 

In anoth­er project with Uzzi, the researchers turned again to the realm of aca­d­e­m­ic research, this time ask­ing: were the most high-impact papers very con­ven­tion­al in the way they inte­grat­ed ideas, or were they very novel? 

Are they com­bin­ing things that every­one else is com­bin­ing?” Jones says. Or are they com­bin­ing things togeth­er that no one’s combining?” 

They found that the sweet spot was when research was most­ly con­ven­tion­al but had just a lit­tle bit of novelty. 

The most suc­cess­ful papers, are most­ly hyper-con­ven­tion­al,” Jones says, real­ly deep in an area everyone’s seen before. And then there’s a lit­tle bit of spice.” 

Find­ing the right bal­ance is the key. 

If the whole thing is spicy, it does bad­ly,” he says. If it’s hyper-con­ven­tion­al with no spice, it does bad­ly. So you’ve got to be real­ly ground­ed, but then you’ve got to mix in some­thing unexpected.” 

This sweet spot applies far out­side the realm of sci­en­tif­ic research. Take con­sumer goods — par­tic­u­lar­ly those that involve new technology. 

So many con­sumer prod­ucts that are nov­el, when you look at them, have all these con­ven­tion­al fea­tures that they don’t actu­al­ly need,” Jones says. 

He pulls out his phone and takes a pic­ture to demonstrate. 

Hear that click? It’s a click just like a cam­era,” he says. Why? They could have had it go boop,’ or it could have vibrat­ed or it could have said, banana.’ But instead it makes that click. You’re used to that sound as a con­sumer, so you’re comfortable.” 

Lay­ing the Ground­work for Col­lab­o­ra­tion

What can orga­ni­za­tions do to encour­age the next break­through prod­uct or idea? How can they ensure that lit­tle bit of spice, that team­ing up of spe­cial­ists in new ways? 

One solu­tion is to, quite lit­er­al­ly, make space for peo­ple to meet poten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tors they may not oth­er­wise run into. 

Pixar is a per­fect exam­ple, Jones says. 

Pixar designed its head­quar­ters in Cal­i­for­nia with all the bath­rooms in the cen­ter of the build­ing, and all the food and cof­fee in the cen­ter in an atri­um,” Jones says. They were very inten­tion­al about want­i­ng peo­ple who are artists and ani­ma­tors, and the coders, and the music peo­ple, and the screen writ­ers to be con­stant­ly bump­ing into each oth­er in ran­dom ways to spark ideas.” 

Com­pa­ny lead­ers can also hold events — from putting out bagels in the morn­ing to after­noon hap­py hours — in these cen­tral spaces to encour­age mix­ing and min­gling of ideas, Jones says. 

At Kel­logg, the new Glob­al Hub build­ing opened this spring with col­lab­o­ra­tive space at its core. And, Jones says, it is work­ing. He has already start­ed talk­ing about poten­tial new col­lab­o­ra­tions with peo­ple out­side his department. 

You’re bump­ing into peo­ple and you’re hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions that you wouldn’t oth­er­wise have,” he says. I’m talk­ing to a finance per­son, to a mar­ket­ing per­son, to a sociologist.” 

Not every inter­ac­tion is going to lead to a home run, he says. But that’s okay. 

Many of those inter­ac­tions are going to be dead ends,” from a col­lab­o­ra­tive point of view, Jones says. But I think it cre­ates the greater prob­a­bil­i­ty of cre­at­ing some inter­ac­tions where you’re like, Hey, wait a sec­ond. We should talk.’” 

Featured Faculty

Benjamin F. Jones

Professor of Strategy; Faculty Director, Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative (KIEI)

About the Writer

Emily Stone is the senior research editor of Kellogg Insight.

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