Posts Tagged MIT

The importance of diversity to collaboration

When forming a group to tackle a project, most teams follow a simple script.  The core constituents draw up a list of the skills and knowledge they think they’ll need to be successful, and then they start calling acquaintances that have the appropriate attributes.  In many cases, though, the way that people build networks can be self-limiting.

Marshall Van Alstyne, a Professor at Boston University and an expert on information economics, made an observation on this phenomenon while describing to Computer World some of his important research:

…there’s evidence that the diversity of social networks really matters, not just the number of people. People have a tendency to build social networks by talking to people like themselves. That’s fine, but it doesn’t increase information diversity. You need to talk to people who aren’t like you. That’s not always easy, but it will increase the diversity of the information you have access to.

So, while building your social networks you should make a special effort to look for people who are different from you and actively seek to diversify the pool of people with whom you regularly communicate.  By doing this you will increase two important components of a successful networker: betweenness and reach.  Marshall used this diagram to illustrate:

Betweenness And Reach
Constrained vs. Unconstrained Constrained vs. Unconstrained

Illustration courtesy of Marshall Van Alstyne.

But having different information is only part of the equation.  A diverse group of individuals will not only possess more diverse data, they will also have different perspectives on the challenge itself, as well as differing cognitive styles that guide the the way they understand and solve abstract problems.  This diversity, leveraged correctly, can increase the collaborative quotient of the group.

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MIT’s sixth sense

In an interesting demonstration at TED 2009 in Long Beach, MIT researcher Pattie Maes demonstrated a neat gadget that expands a person’s view of everyday objects beyond personal sensory perception to include relevant data from other sources on the web.  Built from a few hundred dollars worth of off-the-shelf components, the wearable prototype device responds to the user’s hand gestures to provide enhanced contextual information which is projected onto a nearby surface.  Wired has more details on the demo here, and Fast Company has more info with some pictures of the demo here.

It’s interesting to contemplate the ramifications of instant, organic access to vast amounts of contextual information during everyday personal interactions.  The accumulation and availability of pertinent data is a big part of what enhances successful business interactions, raising their value to both participants far beyond simple transactions.

And the user interface has some fascinating potential as well.

Roger Farnsworth

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