Collaborating Across "Boundaries" - Searching People for Answers

August 5, 2008 · · Posted by Jordan Frank

Mike Gotta points to new research published in HBS Working Knowledge analyzing which groups in an organization are most likely to communicate, crossing social and physical boundaries. The study, Communication (and Coordination?) in a Modern, Complex Organization, reports that "women, mid- to high-level executives and members of executive management, sales and marketing functions are most likely to participate in cross-group communications." It is these people who bridge groups in social structure.

MIT Sloan Management Review Homepage However, the "So What?" of this study is answered in part by research published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Both papers analyze search chains, but one focuses on subsidiaries seeking best practices from others subsidiaries where the other involves employees seeking expertise from other employees.

Being in the "Out" Crowd (published in the Winter 2008 edition) reports on research by L. Felipe Monteiro (of London Business School) and Niklas Arvidsson (of Royal Institute of Technology). The research looked at the impact on performance when subsidiaries fail to exchange information. In the study of 171 subsidiaries belonging to 6 global companies based out of Sweden, the researchers discovered that subsidiaries which did not exchange knowledge tended to perform worse than the ones that did. The study looked at the "process of 'problemistic search', in which the subsidiary finds another business unit that has successfully tackled that problem."

One interesting and unexpected result: "subsidiaries that viewed themselves highly tended to seek out and find information more readily than other subsidiaries." You would expect that high performing subsidiaries would be sought out by others and less likely to feel a need to rely on help from others -- but the case may be that seeking help from others is just what makes them perform well in the first place. One may also guess that the positive reinforcement causes organizational habit forming.

This is an exceptionally strong vote for collaborative initiatives that open boundaries, both formally and informally.

Where the "Out" Crowd study focused on subsidiaries engaging in search behavior to connect with other subsidiaries, The World Might Be Small, but Not for Everyone reports on a study focusing on how individuals engage in search for other individuals in an effort to gather expertise on a subject. The study (reporting on research by Morten T. Hansen of Insead, Joel M. Podolny of Yale School of Management and Jasjit Singh of Insead) examines "search chains: the paths of connections starting from the individuals who initiated search all the way to the people who possessed the necessary knowledge." They looked at 100 consultants and 381 search chains which were initiated. The conclusion points to employees having the longest search chains as those "who were relatively new, who reside at the periphery of the organization, or who where female." Note that women made up a minority of 20% of the employee base at the studied organization. The individuals with the longest search chains had trouble finding the needed expert, and made things worse for themselves by starting with people who were like themselves.

Where the HBS Communication (and Coordination?) points out those most likely to participate in cross group communication, the World Might be Small paper points out those with the longest search chains. An interesting conflict between the two papers is the role of women. If you take both as fact, then women are more likely than average to bridge distant groups in an analysis of general communication, but have longer than average "search chains" when seeking out advice from experts (again, for the latter point there is an assumption that women are a minority in the organization).

The Out Crowd and the World Might be Small paper suggest that performance suffers when people (or organizations) either fail to seek out assistance, or take the long road through familiar sources. All three papers provide ample clues about which groups fail to communicate and collaborate across boundaries, while also setting an imperative to break down the boundaries and connect the dots.

Boundaries result from geographic, cultural and organizational purposes. They also exist in electronic workspaces. Greg Lloyd's blog post about Borders, Spaces and Places offers an insightful look at when and how to create borders between spaces - and how to break them down.

If an electronic approach towards building the social network as a means to break down boundaries and reduce search chains, then its also imperative to bring forth the lurkers and move to a "can know" collaboration model as advocated in Collaboration Tools - Are Information Silos a Problem and Control Doesn't Scale.

Featurewise, the problem of finding experts is challenging as the expert may not simply raise a flag by naming all their skills or topics of expertise where you need help. However, if the experts use blog or wiki workspaces to communicate and contribute knowledge, then using our TeamPage Attivio® Search Module allows users to search for the terms of interest and leverage the "Author Cloud" via the entity navigators to locate internal experts. User Profile Pages make it easier to confirm suspicions about a person's knowledge and find the details necessary to get connected.

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