Are teams as smart when they work online?

Groups in which a few individual dominated conversation scored lower in terms of collective intelligence, as opposed to groups with more vibrant discussions—whether these discussions took place in a room or online. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Office work and human interaction in general are increasingly happening online. And just as with in-person teams, organizations can benefit from being able to predict online group performance.

In past research, Anita Woolley coined the term “collective intelligence.” It describes a measure of the general effectiveness of a group on a wide range of tasks.

Woolley, assistant professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, has conducted a new study that demonstrates the same key factors that influence the collective intelligence in face-to-face teams also apply to online groups.

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“Our previous research was able to identify factors that correlate with collective intelligence,” Woolley says. “For instance, we found that having a lot of smart people in a group does not necessarily make the group smarter.

“However, we also found a significant correlation between the individuals’ ability to reason about the mental states of others—an ability called Theory of Mind—and the collective intelligence of the group.”

One way Theory of Mind is measured is by a Reading of the Eyes test, in which participants read the mental states of others by looking at photos of their eyes.

Woolley and her colleagues divided study participants into 68 distinct groups, some restricted to communicating only online and others allowed to communicate face-to-face. Individual participants were given a Theory of Mind test, and then the groups performed a series of tasks together to measure their collective intelligence.

“Our findings reveal that the same key factors predict collective intelligence in both face-to-face and online teams,” Woolley says.

“Theory of Mind abilities are just as important to group effectiveness in online environments as they are in office environments. We hope that this insight will give organizational managers a new tool in predicting the success of online teams.”

The study also mirrors findings from previous research that demonstrated collective intelligence was significantly correlated to the number of women in the group; a higher number of women raised the group’s collective intelligence.

There also is a negative correlation associated with the number of speaking turns by group members. Groups in which a few individual dominated conversation scored lower in terms of collective intelligence, as opposed to groups with more vibrant discussions—whether these discussions took place in a room or online.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, includes coauthors at MIT and Union College.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University