Traditionally, the Allen Curve has suggested that physical proximity was crucial to collaboration and creativity. Indeed, research from MIT reinforced that physical proximity is still key when supporting collaboration among academic researchers. This is despite the proliferation of virtual collaboration tools.
The study examined over 40,000 published papers and 2,350 patents from MIT researchers over a 10-year period, and mapped out a network of collaborators across the university, before then examining the locations of each collaboration, particularly in relation to the departmental and institutional membership of each researcher.
“Intuitively, there is a connection between space and collaboration,” the researchers say. “That is, you have better chance of meeting someone, connecting, and working together if you are close by spatially.
Location, location, location
Have things changed as a result of a pandemic in which people have often been forced to separate and work from their homes? A second study from MIT suggests not.
The focus of the work was the MIT campus during a time in which building renovation work was extensive and the work forced researchers to relocate. The analysis found that those who were positioned close to one another were far more likely to collaborate. This propensity to collaborate rose until about the five-year mark, at which point it plateaus.
As well as the proximity of the researchers, the study also took into account the various organizational factors that might influence collaboration, including the number of departments, the density of researchers, and even the distribution of researchers across buildings.
The researchers suggest that if organizations want to increase collaboration, then locating people in the same building could help to achieve this, especially if the people are from fields that might not ordinarily collaborate. This is because such proximity increases the opportunity for interaction.
So the matter must be decided and the best collaboration occurs when one is physically nearby to those we’re collaborating with. Research from the University of Oxford casts a degree of doubt on this heuristic.
The paper, which was produced by the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Work, examined the output from around ten million research teams operating in eleven disciplines between 1961 and 2020. The analysis reveals that in the last decade, teams that collaborate remotely have been more successful at producing what the researchers refer to as breakthrough discoveries. This may not be news to anyone who had to work remotely during the pandemic.
“I was CEO in fintech startup when pandemic stroke. Those were turbulent times, and I thought that our development team (which was all in office before) would experience significant slowdown and loss of motivation,” Alex Svinov, CEO and Co-Founder at Insquad tells me. “However, when we moved remote – I got at least three emails from developers with “thank you” for remote work – no-one distracts me, I am working in a very comfortable environment and I don’t have to spend two hours to go to work. In 8 weeks the productivity of our dev team has risen by 32% (in stories released) on average, and in some teams it has grown to over 60%.”
While our remote productivity has been fairly well established, however, there has not been the same confidence in our ability to innovate. That we can do so successfully is especially important as there has been considerable concern in recent times that our innovative output has been slowing down. For instance, research from Stanford highlights how research productivity has been in decline over the past few decades, such that despite the number of researchers and the investment in R&D rising considerably, output has largely stagnated. Indeed, the researchers believe that we need around 20 times as many researchers today to produce the same amount of research productivity growth seen 80 years ago.
So how does remote collaboration help matters? The Oxford researchers believe that remote collaboration helps to support the recombination of ideas and expertise across various different institutions, industries, and locations, which help to provide the ingredients for scientific and technological breakthroughs.
“When remote collaborations happen, individual academics still discuss their ideas within their knowledge networks at their institution,” they explain. “That means we might be seeing a multiplying effect of serendipitous encounters and complementary skills of multiple individuals from different institutions sparking breakthroughs across remote teams.”
If teams want to deliver breakthrough innovations, the paper suggests that remote teams can be effective precisely because they give greater opportunities to introduce new members and new ideas into them.
Research from Harvard Business School suggests that if firms want to encourage truly novel innovations, then grounding innovations in scientific research is also a good thing to consider. Indeed, the researchers argue that when patent filings cite scientific journal articles, they tend to deliver around 26% more value for firms than patented innovations that do not.
The highly competitive nature of the market often means companies are trying to bring innovations to market as quickly as possible, which can encourage a more iterative approach. The researchers argue, however, that by slowing things down firms can earn larger returns on their ever-increasing R&D investments.
“If you are willing dive into the frontier of scientific journal articles, the rewards of science-based innovation are really high,” the researchers say. “I hope it opens some eyes to the value of hard, risky, in-the-weeds science for commercial innovation, as opposed to ‘let’s just go build the thing and make it work on the fly.’”
A gradual approach
Of course, you might need to help researchers somewhat, as research in Nature a few years ago found that many academics lack effective collaboration skills. The findings emerged from a survey of over 600 academics and researchers across the physical, natural and social sciences. The academics revealed that they didn’t think they had the skills required to collaborate effectively with their peers. Indeed, just 20% said they had received training on collaborative research, despite the growing importance of it.
To collaborate effectively across labs, countries and even continents requires a unique set of skills, and often individuals or even entire labs lack these skills. With collaborative research typically of higher quality and more frequently cited, however, it’s vital for researchers to master this skill.
“It is especially important for early-career researchers to feel confident working on collaborative research projects because these may open doors to a wide range of future projects, or even last an entire career,” the researchers explain. “One step we can take to ensure that academics are equipped for collaborative research is to offer suitable training on the skills collaboration requires, like teamwork, project and people management, communication across cultures and disciplines, big data management, administrative and negotiation skills.”
It seems increasingly that this kind of training should also include tuition on how to effectively work and collaborate virtually as well as physically.