The February issue of Harvard Business Review includes a “breakthrough idea” from Sandy Pentland of MIT, How Social Networks Work Best, that confirms what we have learned in years of managing virtual innovation teams: Web 2.0 tools are very useful when teams are gathering ideas and information but when the time comes to synthesize that information and decide where and how to proceed, teams benefit tremendously from face-to-face interaction.
The article describes the decision process of bees in determining where to locate a new hive. More detail on this strategy can be found in an article about Cornell biologist Thomas Seeley’s research, Strategy: Groups vote on hive locations: honeybees:
“In one test they put out five nest boxes, four that weren’t quite big enough and one that was just about perfect. Scout bees soon appeared at all five. When they returned to the swarm, each performed a waggle dance urging other scouts to go have a look. (These dances include a code giving directions to a box’s location.) The strength of each dance reflected the scout’s enthusiasm for the site. After a while, dozens of scouts were dancing their little feet off, some for one site, some for another, and a small cloud of bees was buzzing around each box.
“The decisive moment didn’t take place in the main cluster of bees, but out at the boxes, where scouts were building up. As soon as the number of scouts visible near the entrance to a box reached about 15—a threshold confirmed by other experiments—the bees at that box sensed that a quorum had been reached, and they returned to the swarm with the news.
“‘It was a race,’ Seeley says. ‘Which site was going to build up 15 bees first?’
“Scouts from the chosen box then spread through the swarm, signaling that it was time to move. Once all the bees had warmed up, they lifted off for their new home, which, to no one’s surprise, turned out to be the best of the five boxes.
Pentland’s article focuses on the two processes at play in the bees’ decision making: the centralized process of sending out scouts to gather information and having them return to report back on what they have found and the richly connected network in which various scouts are dancing in the hive and other scouts are looking at the dancers and deciding which one to follow. He writes that creative teams may exhibit the same oscillation between these two processes.
Our experience with globally dispersed innovation teams over the years has shown this pattern. In their scouting phase, teams make good use of collaborative tools to aggregate such information as opportunities they have uncovered and key senior supporters. And idea markets enable team members to dance in front of their favorite idea. But invariably teams request more face-to-face time because it is more efficient.
This is why we consider it critical that teams begin their work with a substantial amount of time together. The experience forces everyone to listen and contribute – demands which weaken with distance and mediating technology – and enables the team to rapidly share large amounts of information on multiple levels. The momentum the teams build up in their time together can carry them through the much more difficult experience of working virtually.