The Science Behind the Growing Importance of Collaboration
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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.

Science behind collaboration including spaces

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.

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.

Specialized Knowledge

Why is collaboration important?

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 the 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 Global Hub building was designed with collaborative space at its core. And, Jones says, it’s effective. He finds himself 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

Gordon and Llura Gund Family Professor of Entrepreneurship; Professor of Strategy

About the Writer
Emily Stone is the senior research editor of Kellogg Insight.
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