Want to be more Productive? Try Thinking Collaboratively

Adi Gaskell

New research suggests that if we are to get the most from our knowledge workers we need to get them collaborating on how they think rather than just on what they’re thinking about, writes Adi Gaskell. Here's why.

For decades knowledge management has aimed to take the knowledge we each have and spreading it throughout the organisation. Thinkers such as Nonaka and Takeuchi conceptualised the knowledge sharing process into models such as this one:

Many social media sites showcase this thinking in real time as users submit, edit and curate content voluntarily each day, making the overall community smarter in the process. Projects such as Galaxy Zoo have showcased how effective communities can be, with the sum unquestionably smarter than the parts.

New research from Carnegie Mellon and Microsoft takes a slightly different tact however and explores whether a community can make how we think more effective. In our knowledge economy productivity of thought is increasingly important, especially as research suggests that productivity amongst knowledge workers is particularly low.

They found that when these mental processes had been honed by other users the quality of their own work was significantly higher than if they started from scratch or with a newly created knowledge map.

"Collectively, people spend more than 70 billion hours a year trying to make sense of information they have gathered online," says Aniket Kittur, assistant professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. "Yet in most cases, when someone finishes a project, that work is essentially lost, benefitting no one else and perhaps even being forgotten by that person. If we could somehow share those efforts, however, all of us might learn faster."

After major projects it is quite common to have a post-mortem to thrash out what went well, what didn’t and try and internalise the learnings from that project. Some even conduct pre-mortems to identify potential problems before they’ve occurred.

For knowledge work however it would appear that this kind of procedural scrutiny does not occur anywhere near as often. The research revealed that the benefit from the iterated knowledge maps did not come from the content itself but rather how the map was organised.

For instance, two people looking to start a garden might live in different climates or settings, so the types of seeds they might plant could be different, but each would benefit from elements such as "design ideas," "how to," and so on.

In a multinational environment the same could apply, with the circumstances of each situation unique, but the processes required to deliver good results similar.

Using eye tracking, the researchers showed that as multiple users successively modify knowledge maps, new users spend less time looking at specific content elements, shifting a greater balance of their attention to structural elements like labels. "This suggests that distributed sensemaking facilitates the process of ‘schema induction,’ or forming a mental model of the information being considered," Counts says.

The key is however that this focus on structure did not occur until the map had been modified at least once.

Improve how you think

So just as organisations are now concentrating as much on the how of business as the what, this research suggests that if we are to get the most from our knowledge workers we need to get them collaborating on how they think rather than just on what they’re thinking about.