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Jan. 14, 2011, 2:30 p.m.

IRL, FTW: The benefits of in-person collaboration

One of the web’s most obviously awesome features is its capacity to connect us over physical distances. From my desk here in Cambridge, I can, if I choose, chat with a friend in Australia, or help someone in Thailand produce an encyclopedia, or follow a revolution in real-time. A networked world allows for a new kind of working environment: the virtual one, the one where ideas can be divorced from the often inefficient realities — commutes! off-topic conversations! — of the physical.

But, when it comes to making things together: Is virtual always better?

Maybe not. Clive Thompson highlights a study suggesting that, in fact, collaborators’ physical proximity can actually play a key role in the quality of their work. Three researchers at Harvard’s med school studied 35,000 biomedical research papers (which had at least one Harvard author)…and found that, the more closely the teams worked together — the more physically closely — the more impact their work had. So teams that worked in the same building produced papers with greater impact than those who worked only in the same city. And teams whose members worked in different cities produced papers with, generally, less impact overall.

Since you could easily see the thing going the other way — geographical distribution leading to more intellectual distribution leading to more impact — it’s a fascinating finding. And while you wouldn’t want to read too much into it, Thompson notes — neither Harvard nor biomedical research are, you know, automatically indicative of The World at Large — the study does provide a nice nugget of insight into how collaboration can thrive in a digital world. And one that’s especially relevant to news organizations as they navigate their place within both physical and virtual communities.

Sometimes, sure, working separately can have benefits — Thompson mentions the Medici Effect — but just as often, making the effort to get coworkers together in one room, time-wasting chit-chat and all, can be worth the investment. IRL collaborations may not be as efficient as their online counterparts in the short run. In the long run, though, they might lead to better products.

Image by Jiheffe used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 14, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
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