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Is Collaboration Really the Holy Grail?

In a recent opinion piece in the Times, Susan Cain considers the rise of "collaboration" in American business, education and culture. She notes that while teamwork is all the rage, with offices and classrooms designed to foster group interactions, the most creative and original thinkers tend to be isolationists--people who work best on their own. That's not to say they can't or won't share ideas, but they do the bulk of their work alone.

For instance, while Apple's Steve Jobs has received much of the glory for his company’s success, Cain reminds us that Steve Wozniak, who built the home PC that would eventually help start Apple, did all his hard work alone. Research, too, supports the theory that working alone leads to better ideas.

Brainstorming comes in for special scrutiny: It may lead to more ideas, but it rarely leads to better ideas. (The "evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups," wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham.) The reason is that people in groups tend to let others do their thinking for them; they are more likely to go along with group ideas, rather than spend time nursing--and then defending--their own. The social pressure to "fit in" seems to play a heavy role here, and it negatively impacts creative thinking.

The good news is that collaboration does have its place--and new technologies can help support it. What drives the most creative thought and greatest productivity is leaving people alone to work, and then allowing them to get together with colleagues as needed, and when they’re ready, to share ideas and test theories. Internet-based and social media technologies are perfect for this, since they are both asynchronous and real-time, and because the screen itself appears to act as a barrier to fear; people are more willing to state their own, conflicting opinions when they are not actually face to face with their opponents.

Frost & Sullivan’s latest end-user research backs this up. As I noted in a post last week, many more people use social media in the workplace than use web or video conferencing--probably because social media, despite its relative newness compared to conferencing, lets people interact on their own schedule, and behind a screened wall.

According to the same study, nearly 85 percent of companies are supporting virtual workers--employees who spend at least part of their workweek outside a traditional office. That, too, can have a positive influence on productivity, since people who work from home are less likely to be interrupted by co-workers on a constant basis. (Let's leave aside other potential home-based interruptions, like kids and repairmen.) By letting people work alone much or most of the time, then connect with colleagues as needed via the Internet, home-based work may be the most effective of all.