Proximity and the Innovative Spark

Ross-School-of-Business-27203783-0614A new study finally sheds light on how important proximate collaboration can be. Those of us in the technology and software space all know about the now apocryphal story of a defiant Marisa Mayer ending the long-standing work from home policy at Yahoo in an attempt to create a more vibrant culture. Of course, Marisa had been a long-time employee at Google where telecommuting isn’t allowed and employees are encouraged to find time for face-to-face interactions.  It’s always been surprising to me how little technology has been developed to support proximate collaboration and how many technologies are available for distant interactions (video teleconferencing, document management, etc..).

Given that the software we’ve been building (Solstice) is focused on enabling media-rich proximate collaboration, I’m often asked, “How important is being in the same room” for decision making, collaboration and other interactions. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence related to proximate collaborations and large companies work hard to physically arrange their spaces to make sure employees that should interact are near one another. These “serendipitous interactions” or “casual collaborations” create synergies between finance, engineers, designers and production teams that just don’t occur over large distances.

Now, we have objective evidence that speaks to the importance of proximate collaboration. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business developed a notion they call the “functional zone,” a more sophisticated understanding of what makes pairs of workers collaborate.  It turns out, physical distance isn’t the only factor (after all I can sit right next to someone and probably not collaborate if they wear headphones and close their door all day).  Functional zones are areas of common function that groups of employees utilize — creating opportunities for collaboration.  Examples include hallways, lunch rooms, conference rooms and your own work space. These define a territory that workers will traverse throughout the day, and they are not always fixed.  For example, here at Mersive, the Tuesday food trucks show up outside our door and I often see members of the marketing team outside with engineers, chatting it up over tacos or ice cream.

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The research is captured in a paper entitled, “Zone Overlap and Collaboration in Academic Biomedicine: A Functional Proximity Approach to Socio-Spatial Network Analysis,” and describes how the researcher tracked workers and developed a statistical model of collaboration based on co-worker functional overlap. An important conclusion of the research is that the more your functional territory overlaps with a co-worker, the more likely you are to collaborate. These collaborations resulted in more success for the workers involved. They found that if new collaborations are rare, small changes in the amount of overlap between employees functional zone’s can dramatically increase collaboration probability. For example, if the functional paths I walk everyday overlap another worker’s by 200 feet rather than 100 — we are 17 percent more likely to form a new collaboration.  The study even measured the impact of increased collaboration. For example, the study followed biomedical researchers and found that with a 100 foot increase in overlap between two workers, there was a 20 percent increase in the chance that the workers would be successful in getting a grant funded.

The work is outstanding in that it takes what we all knew to be true as the subjective “water cooler” effect and demonstrated that there are real objective, measurable outcomes to increasing the number and efficiency of proximate collaborations in the workplace. Of course, I find it exciting, because I am so focused on delivering software that allows our customers to have more effective collaborative interactions.  I’ll also point out that the Ross School of Business is a Solstice customer, so they must be putting their own research results into practice. Other higher ed Solstice customers including The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania must also see the value of this research on proximate collaborations as we’re in the midst of rolling out Solstice throughout its campus.