Tag Archives: collaboration

Meritocracy? Might want to re-think how you define merit.

Rock on!
You might think if you put together a lot of smart people, you’d get a smart group, but new research into group intelligence shows that’s not always the case. (For those of you who don’t have access to online journal subscriptions through your local library or university, there are more details in the Carnegie Mellon University press release.)

What we found is that the intelligence of the team members was not significantly related to the collective intelligence, either positively or negatively.


Our first observation and the one that surprised us the most was that the proportion of females in the group seemed to be strongly predictive of the collective intelligence of the group.

However, when they looked more closely they realised that it wasn’t the gender that mattered, but rather the social sensitivity of the group members (previous studies had shown that women tend to score more highly in social sensitivity).

It’s not the intelligence of the group members that matters; it’s their social sensitivity.

So the more your group members were socially sensitive, the better the group performed in measures of collective intelligence. The key here was that group members need to collaborate, and to do that they needed those social skills to help them work together. This includes some different conversational patterns: groups where one or two people dominated conversations exhibited low collective intelligence, while groups where more people contributed had higher collective intelligence.

This scientific research is potentially a big blow to the standard “meritocracy works” theory often espoused in open source and computing groups. Standard meritocracy rules say you do clever things and you get accepted, and this will make for perfectly good teams. But given that there’s often bias that dismisses “soft skills,” it turns out that folk may actually be using typical geek meritocracy rules to weed out some of the people we need to make the group most effective as a whole.

Some of my female colleagues would like to conclude that you simply just need to hire more women. While that might be easier, what it really suggests is that you need to pay attention to what people refer to as these “softer skills” and thinking about who’s going to be a good team player, not necessarily focused solely on individual achievement, individual accomplishments.

So if you want to claim that the best way to build tech teams is meritocracy… you might want to think more carefully about how you define merit.

Rock show DS

The quotes in this article are drawn from Bob McDonald’s conversation with Dr. Anita Williams Woolley, the lead author, on the Quirks and Quarks interview aired October 9. You can download the podcast of the segment on collective intelligence here.

Geek & feminist thoughts on “In The Loop”

I saw the political satire In The Loop a few days back.  It passes the Bechdel test — how novel — and it struck me as a fairly geek-oriented film.

We geeks like our entertainment as plot/banter firehose with subtle, unspoken worldbuilding. That’s what In The Loop (and its predecessor TV show, The Thick of It) deliver — that and social engineering.  You get to watch people scheme, performing ad hoc systems analysis to solve the puzzle of their immediate predicament.  It’s like Leverage without the wish-fulfillment or Hardison, Elliot or Parker.  (In the geeky-banter category, In The Loop has characters mock Toby (Chris Addison) by calling him “Frodo,” “Ron Weasley,” and “baby from Eraserhead.”)

One of my geekeries is politics, specifically organizational behavior and the power of institutions. In The Loop argues that the media/governing apparatus functions as one homeostatic institution, where any demonstration of the pettier human weaknesses (e.g., status-seeking, frustration, lust, loathing) leads to an instant barrage of bad press and gives your enemies leverage. It’s a marvelous system, really, and ultra-efficient: if you think you’ve found some room to maneuver, some opportunity for arbitrage, you’re wrong and your audacity will be punished. It’s a power structure that guards itself against change, and will only ever pay lip service to feminism and anti-racism. A dark vision, but the film left me laughing.

Warning: Sexist and homophobic insults pervade the dialogue from start to finish.This would have bothered me more if I’d thought the insults were more substance than form; the viciousness was so over-the-top that I couldn’t take it seriously. But some people will find it distasteful or triggering.

Software geekery: Late in the film, two users across the Atlantic from each other open their laptops and work on the same document simultaneously, one telling the other via phone what to delete or rearrange. I immediately thought, If only they were using AbiWord’s document-sharing plugin, they could collaborate in realtime using Telepathy integration!

If The West Wing and Star Trek are idealistic, meritocratic wish fulfillment, and In The Loop is a cynical response to West Wing-style idealism, then what’s the bitter-laugh counterpart to Star Trek? Potential candidates:

Social coding, OMG Ponies

I love pair programming and working on code with other people and talking things through. In short, editing code as a social activity. If you noticed Google’s Mobwrite, it was a large scale collaborative editor, fun to play with, basically a real time wiki. Bespin provides a structure within a browser window to check code out from an svn repository, and edit it at the same time as other people, who appear in a sidebar. You can start projects and give people you “friend” varying levels of access to the code.

I’ve experimented with collaborative coding using screen for pair programming, and during meetings to discuss code. It’s best done in person or with voice and chat at the same time. Bespin looks like an incredibly useful extension of that concept. I hope that there will be effort to make it as universally accessible as possible.

I see Bespin as something that might be especially useful to women coding together, and I’ll see how Dreamwidth project members feel about trying it out. I could also see it being quite useful for people I know at BlogHer to debug WordPress templates. I think that women might more often than men buy into the myth of the lone and lonely programmer, the hermit-like coder genius, where code springs out full grown like Athena from Zeus’s head. But in my experience guys hack together and thus they learn together, while women are not only more often isolated, but are under more pressure to display perfect solutions or not to expose work in progress — a systematic pattern of that kicks in very hard when we’re teenagers.

The soul of open source is collaborating and improving on previous work. I think that collaborating in real time as a friendly social activity, with conversation, will feel more comfortable to some women than checking in code and waiting for feedback. So, I predict that Bespin and tools like it will be a powerful factor bringing women into coding and into open source communities, as a social activity to be done with friends.

Bespin Collaboration from Joe Walker on Vimeo.

* Stop, Collaborate, and Code
* Collaborating with Bespin
* Bespin Tutorial
* Introducing Bespin
* Collaboration in Bespin