How a lurker benefits from observing collaboration

A lurker within the massively collaborative Polymath project explains the benefit he received.

The Polymath Project is a collaboration among mathematicians to solve important and difficult mathematical problems by coordinating many mathematicians to communicate with each other. The project uses a blog, to manage conversation, and a wiki to build the solution. Mathematicians of all seniorities take part, the result is truly collaborative, and several papers have been published under the pseudonym D.H.J. Polymath.

A recent paper discussing the solution of the 8th problem to be solved by the Polymath community contains an interesting couple of paragraphs by an American Undergraduate maths student, Andrew Gibson. Andrew and his classmates are not yet experienced enough to contribute to the project, but they gained valuable knowledge and insight through lurking and observing.

As Andrew explains

“Shortly after Zhang announced his result and you (Tao, the coordinator of the Polymath community) proposed the project, my classmates and I began a small, weekly seminar with a professor devoted to studying some of the theory involved (analytic number theory, sieve methods, etc.), albeit on a much more elementary level that was within our reach.

Of course, the majority of the actual proof is still mostly over our heads but at least I feel as if I’ve gained a bird’s-eye-view of the strategy and, probably more importantly, how it fits into the larger field. (For instance, before any of this, I could never have explained the Bombieri/Vinogradov theorem or the Hardy-Littlewood prime tuple conjecture.) So for us the project was a great excuse to enter a new subject and has been immensely educational. 

More than that though – reading the posts and following the ‘leader-board’ (blog) felt a lot like an academic spectator sport. It was surreal, a bit like watching a piece of history as it occurred. It made the mathematics feel much more alive and social, rather than just coming from a textbook. I don’t think us undergrads often get the chance to peak behind closed doors and watch professional mathematicians “in the wild” like this so, from a career standpoint, it was illuminating. I get the sense that this is the sort of activity I can look forward to in grad school and as a post-doc doing research (…hopefully). I also suspect that many other students from many other schools have had similar experiences but, like me, chose to stay quiet, as we had nothing to contribute. So, thank you all for organising this project and making it publically available online”.

I love the bit about  “academic spectator sport” and “watching professional mathematicians in the wild”.

This is the benefit of a community deliberately “collaborating out loud” to an audience of more novide members – they get to experience the way the experts think and the way they collaborate on solutions. It’s an intense learning experience for the lurker.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

When collaboration does more harm than good

Collaboration is not always helpsful, and there are cases where it actually reduces your chance of success.

The ideas in this blog post are from a very interesting paper by Martine Haas and Morten Hansen, who look at success data from bid teams to find out when collaboration actually helps performance.

They looked at a series of bid teams, assessed how much they accessed documents from previous bids (which they called “codified knowledge”), and how much they received advice from experienced colleagues outside the team (“personal knowledge”). They then looked at bid success rates, to give an objective measure of the VALUE of the knowledge to the team.

Now, we might assume that the more Knowledge a team accesses, the better their performance?

Unfortunately it is not as simple as that.

Results of the study

The graphs shown here are the authors’ conclusions about how much in knowledge helps to improve bid performance, in varying circumstances. In each graph, the vertical axes represents increasing bid success probability, the horizontal axis represents increasing amount of knowledge used, the black line is “codified knowledge” (reuse of documents) and the purple line represents “personal knowledge”. If the lines rise from left to right, then increased knowledge is linked to increased chances of success. If they fall from left to right, then increased knowledge is linked to reduced success. Read the paper to understand the evidence behind these.

The top left graph (2i) represents a team which is inexperienced (and so has a high need to learn), working in a situation where they do not need to differentiate the bid significantly, so can deliver a fairly standard proposal. In this case, the more knowledge they use, the more documents they copy and the more experts they refer to, the better their chances of success. Here collaboration is helpful.

The top right graph (2ii) represents a team which is inexperienced (and so has a high need to learn), but are working in a situation where they really need to differentiate the bid. Here it is a great idea to get input and knowledge from experienced colleagues, but the re-use of documents from previous bids is actually harmful to the chances of success. So here the right collaboration is helpful.

The bottom right graph (2iii) represents a team which is experienced (and so has a low need to learn), and who are working in a situation where they really need to differentiate the bid. Again, it is a great idea to get input and knowledge from experienced colleagues, but the re-use of documents from previous bids is actually harmful to the chances of success. Again the right collaboration is helpful.

The final graph at bottom left (2iv) represents a team which is experienced (and so has a low need to learn), and who are working in a routine situation where bid differentiation is not needed. In this case, they pretty much know what they are doing, and re-using any knowledge does more harm than good. Collaboration is harmful.

So what’s the conclusion?

The conclusion is that collaboration, the re-use of documents or seeking input from others is not always going to help you, and in some cases it can hinder.

In most cases (3 out of the 4), the more input you get from colleagues the better, but also in  most cases (3 out of the 4), recycling documents from other teams will not help you perform better, and may even harm your chances of success.

So know your context, and choose a collaborative method that will actually help, not hinder. If you are experienced, and dealing with routine work, collaboratiopn may be a distraction you don’t need.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

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