Low Fares Bost Scientific Collaboration?

Across fields, the benefits to co-laboring (collaboration) or working together continues to gain momentum.  Given the benefits of having multiple minds working together on difficult problems, more and more attention is getting paid to the conditions that support successful collaboration.  This is as true in K-12 education as it is in top scientific research.  So what are these conditions?  What are the key components to making collaborative efforts work?

A story from Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam on a September 22 broadcast of Morning Edition highlighted one such condition and a surprising ally in supporting collaborative work.  You can listen to the full story here.

The takeaway from this story isn’t just that low fares from Southwest Airlines helps support collaborative scientific research, it’s that in spite of high tech tools for online “meetings,” there are still ways that physical proximity, actually being in a space together matter.  As I think about innovations in my own field, specifically in education and mediation, I’m struck with this need for proximity.

Ironically, the benefits of working face-to-face flies in the face of the migration to distance learning, online tools, and more.A quick search for “Online Dispute Resolution” from Mediate.com yields piles of articles examining and, in many cases, extolling the possibilities of online conflict resolution.  In teaching communities, online forums and databases abound to support teacher collaboration and professional learning.  If physical proximity is indeed so important to strong research, why are we so quick to let physical proximity go in exchange for online tools?

From my own research on conflict resolution in schools, I learned the value of having a time and space to work out conflicts within elementary schools.  Indeed, the greatest predictor of whether or not colleagues would engage one another in difficult conversations was whether or not they had  designated time to work together and clear process norms to start those conversations.  Thinking about this broadly, I feel like these two elements are indeed critical components to successful collaboration, regardless of the field.

In most work spaces, Southwest Airlines’ low fares aren’t necessary to put you face-to-face with likely collaborators but the value of these interactions is worth remembering.  Once parties are in the same room, thoughtful meeting design, facilitation, and tools for resolving conflict are also critically important components.  In this, we see the same needs regardless of whether the collaborators are scientific researchers at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) or K-12 educators working in a Professional Learning Community (PLC).

As you work through issues in your own workplace, consider applying these lessons.  In conflict, skip sending off an email and instead walk down the hall to see if you can work it out face to face!  As inviting as it may be to sit behind our computer screens, it seems that working together…actually, physically working in the same space with colleagues will give you the best results in the long run.

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