Friday, December 09, 2005

Diverse Teams: Key to Effective Online Collaborations


Diverse groups experience higher levels of interaction, and thus performance, resulting in higher persistence, satisfaction, and retention. This applies to e-learning as well as face-to-face settings, and is reinforced by work I recently rediscovered which was published more than ten years ago by teams investigating the impact of diversity on team performance.

Comparing task performance of homogeneous groups against the performance of diverse groups revealed a number of rather surprising things about how diverse groups interact with each other and achieve defined outcomes.

Performance was measured in two separate categories:

1- Problem-solving;
2- Quality of interaction between group members.

The researchers, W. Watson, K. Kumar, and L. Michaelsen (1993), found that the level of diversity of a team did have a measurable impact. Within the confines of their research, a "diverse" team was one that contained at least two or more nationalities and three or more ethnic backgrounds.

In this case, heterogeneous groups out-performed homogeneous groups in interaction, and in problem-solving (where the tasks were not complex) when the groups were short-term.

Group heterogeneity

1- Stimulated productive discussions
2- Increased the number of strategies employed in problem-solving.

Other findings included that

1- Small tasks are more effectively performed than complex ones;
2- Short-term groups are dynamic and characterized by high levels of productive interaction.

While these findings may seem self-evident, upon close examination, one sees that the results are almost counter-intuitive. Instead of creating confusion or miscommunication, there is a new level of clarity. The is attributable to the fact that diverse groups interact more and are solution-centered. The higher the level of diversity, the more solution-focused the interaction.

The implications for online collaborations are multiple:

1- Encourage diverse groupings
2- Assign tasks with simple structure, which can be accomplished rapidly
3- Avoid complex tasks and problems and create building-block structures
4- Ground tasks and activities in a real-life situation that has an objective correlative in the phenomenal world, which is to say, make it something the group members can relate to, and which can help them in their lives.

There are many implications for future research, both in terms of workplace virtual collaborations and online learning. It might be interesting to see if there is a relationship between the level of communication and interaction in a diverse group with satisfaction and persistence.

Clearly, collaborations that frustrate team members lead to a failure to persist and such demotivating collaborative activities negatively affect completion, satisfaction and retention rates. If the converse is true, it would be very useful to take a close look into how diverse groups experience higher levels of interaction, and thus performance, resulting in persistence, satisfaction, and retention.

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