My colleague Peter Miller recently posed this question: Is there any research that proves there are benefits to problem solving in a group, rather than individually or in pairs? We were talking about communities of practice and their value. We were also discussing whether there is an optimum size for communities, specifically, communities in a business environment, where the community typically forms around a business issue or service, as opposed to a personal hobby or interest.
Clearly the normal kinds of personal interest communities, where any number of people come together voluntarily based upon a shared interest, have a high tolerance for large numbers of participants and varying levels of involvement. After all, most members never actually participate/contribute, or they contribute occasionally on only limited, highly specialized topics. Business communities are often smaller, more specialized subsets of a broader group that break out so people with like interests can find each other quickly and solve common problems more efficiently. Participants in these groups have a strong motivation to participate in problem-solving and contribute â€“ it helps them do their work better. Research Iâ€™ve read over the years indicates that about 250 members is as large as a community can get before becoming ineffective (maybe that depends upon how you define the group’s purpose, e.g. casual or purposeful). There does seem to be an upper limit or point of diminishing returns, although I havenâ€™t seen a definition of what that may be.
From my experience, in most discussion groups, no matter how lively the topic or how interested the community is in the subject matter, usually no more than 6-10 members carry the discussion on that topic actively, with others occasionally chiming in. If you imagine the inside of an active volcano (or the Lakkari Tar Pits in Un’goro Crater, if you happen to be a gamer playing World of Warcraft), where bubbles slowly rise and burst at irregular locations throughout the crater, you have a good sense of community dynamics. Some topics rise slowly and are large. Some are smaller and faster. They rise up and subside. You don’t know where the next one will appear, and the ripples and splashes created by each is unique. Community discussions are like that.
A person with a question to answer (and a deadline approaching) will find some sort of answer on his/her own, through reading, through hunches based upon experience or through asking others. What especially intrigues me, though, is the actual value we can ascribe to having additional people help answer the question, and the parameters around getting the optimum answer from a group. How do we quantify or assess the value of having additional people engaged in solving a problem or making a decision? What’s the right number of people to involve in the discussion?
If you have three people working on the question, does the 80/20 rule apply? Itâ€™s obviously faster and less expensive than getting a team of 20 involved. Will you get enough of an answer that you can move forward with reasonable confidence? If you have six people, can you get to the optimum answer/solution 99% of the time? Perhaps a group that size can reach a reasonably ironclad conclusion. If you have 12, is the resulting incremental information gained of sufficiently high value to justify the time/expense of having those additional people involved? Or do you hit a point where the incremental value of new thoughts is so low that it becomes too costly to add more voices? What is that point? And let’s not forget that other people who don’t participate in the discussion still read and learn from it. There’s value that should be applied to that.
Moving out of communities into a real world situation, the ability to know the optimum size for problem-solving groups could streamline all kinds of organizational meetings, saving time and speeding processes. It’s easy to imagine a Six Sigma project to define types of meetings and optimum configurations for them. If we knew how to assess the value of group decision making, then collaboration and knowledge management professionals would have a basis upon which to establish high-performance work groups, teams and communities designed for action. But we need some data to prove that better decisions result from problem solving in a group. This may be challenging since results-oriented subgroups are not a traditional dynamic of communities. Communities don’t typically have accountability for the discussions they enable, they aren’t obliged to ensure full and complete analysis, and topics are often free-flowing and have no closure — but that’s a digression from this topic.
Even in the volcanic bubbling of a community, there are some good indicators that group decision making and problem solving have value. Research suggests that learning is largely a social activity, learning in groups generally improves participants’ learning, successful group work can improve higher-order thinking, and having a facilitator/moderator can improve group collaboration. (Facilitation is another component or dynamic in communities that can improve or impede collaborative performance on a problem-solving task.) One strong predictor of problem-solving success is whether members of the group share a mental model, i.e., they are working with similar conceptions of the problem and its states. A good conceptual model of the problem, together with the strategic knowledge to generate appropriate solutions and procedural knowledge to carry them out, results in more successful solutions — but it still doesn’t tell us what the value of having more than one person involved in the process is.
How to improve problem solving and decision making in organizations has been discussed widely in recent years, and we seem collectively to understand more about how to make the decision making process better. But has anyone quantified the value of having more than one person participate in the decision-making process? Itâ€™s an interesting topic. If you know of any research in this direction, Iâ€™d love to know about it. Drop me a note or post a comment here!