From Crowds to Collaborators: Initiating Effort and Catalyzing Interactions Among Online Creative Workers

Harvard Business School Paper by Kevin J. Boudreau, Patrick Gaule, Karim R. Lakhani, Christoph Riedl, and Anita Williams Woolley: “Online “organizations” are becoming a major engine for knowledge development in a variety of domains such as Wikipedia and open source software development. Many online platforms involve collaboration and coordination among members to reach common goals. In this sense, they are collaborative communities. This paper asks: What factors most inspire online teams to begin to collaborate and to do so creatively and effectively? The authors analyze a data set of 260 individuals randomly assigned to 52 teams tasked with developing working solutions to a complex innovation problem over 10 days, with varying cash incentives. Findings showed that although cash incentives stimulated a significant boost of effort per se, cash incentives did not transform the nature of the work process or affect the level of collaboration. In addition, at a basic yet striking level, the likelihood that an individual chooses to participate depended on whether teammates were themselves active. Moreover, communications among teammates led to more communications, and communications among teammates also stimulated greater continuous levels of effort. Overall, the study sheds light on how perspectives on incentives, predominant in economics, and perspectives on social processes and interactions, predominant in research on organizational behavior and teams, can be better understood. Key concepts include:

  • An individual’s likelihood of being active in online collaboration increases by about 41 percent with each additional active teammate.
  • Management could provide communications channels to make the efforts of other members more visible. This is important in the design of systems for online work as it helps members to confirm that others are actively contributing.

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