For Hard Problems, Two Heads Are Better Than One Network

Loraine Lawson

We've all heard the benefits of online collaboration tools: Shorter (if any) meetings, more input from employees, better collaboration.


Tiny problem with that logic: It's not true.


Or, at least, that's what a recent study by Sandia National Laboratories demonstrated. When it came to quality and quantity of responses to complex problems -- which the study termed "wicked" problems -- face-to-face meetings yielded results equal to or better than input via the lab's Intranet.


I must say, this is not just bad news for Web 2.0 fans, but for me, personally. I hate meetings. Hate, hate, hate meetings. And since I've started freelancing from home, I've managed to work entire years with only a few oddball meetings. What I've learned is: One meeting every year or two, plus a few e-mails and the occasional phone call, will suffice. (Unless, of course, there's a free lunch involved.)


Of course, there are several reasons not to take the study too seriously. First, they used the Intranet, and it's not clear whether that included newer, real-time collaborative software.


Second, there's this issue of so-called wicked problems. The article defines wicked problems as "...those problems that by their very definition are so tangled that there is no agreement about their definitions, much less their solutions." If you can't agree about definitions, then right away, the problem probably isn't a good candidate for solving via the Intranet or e-mail, given how prone people are to using an inappropriate tone or poor word choice.


Speaking of poor word choice, my third problem with this study is that the problem itself was stupid. This is obviously my personal opinion, but in the real world, no one would use the Intranet to try to "solve" a problem as impractical and, frankly, academic as they did.


They asked employees to pontificate on the implications of two management theories: Employees as natural resources, to be used, versus employees are assets to be developed and made more valuable. That these even qualify as "management theories" explains why Dilbert is so popular. And, also, why employees -- whether they're of the asset or natural resource variety -- really like the idea of telecommuting and just being humans.


Even the researches noted that, despite their findings, Web-based interactions are better for some problems -- such as when you need input from a large number of people. Plus, the Web-based participants still offered insightful comments. They also anticipate that future software will improve the results.


Let's hope so. But for now, if you have a really esoteric problem to solve, you might consider favoring a box of donuts in the conference room over collaborative technology.

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