Reflections on the ‘New Groupthink’ and lessons for asynchronous collaborative e-learning

I re-read Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking’. According to this very well researched book, at least one-third of the population are introverts. The book provides great insights into how introverts live within a culture that rewards and favours extroversion. Lots of people are ‘ambivert’ – they have traits of both introverts as extroverts – but one is always dominant. Cain uses many interesting examples to explain how this influences our relationships as well as the way we work and learn.

The chapter ‘When collaboration kills creativity’ is one that I read very slowly, where I stop and think most. After all, my favourite e-learning approach is the eWorkshop model, which has a strong collaborative focus. In any cohort, there are many people who rave about this, yet there are always people who really don’t like it. Interestingly, when I happen to meet participants, it seems the greatest fans are often introverts. (I’m an introvert too – which might surprise those of you who have met me in person. The book explains ‘pseudo-extrovert’ adaptive tendencies really well). Some of the participants who have most trouble adapting to working in group without face-to-face contact are extroverts.

This is surprising considering what we know of introverts and extroverts. Aren’t introverts averse to team work? And aren’t the extroverts the ones who always prefer collaboration to individual work? And what does that mean for our eWorkshops? Are we right to promote collaborative learning?

Susan Cain refers to an extensive University of California (Berkeley) research back in the sixties, echoed by later studies, which indicates that the more creative people tended to be more socially poised introverts. They were interpersonally skilled but “not of an especially sociable or participatory temperament.” They described themselves as independent and individualistic.

In other words, writes Cain, if you’re in the backyard sitting under a tree while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, you’re more likely to have an apple fall on your head. (She goes on to explain that Newton was one of the world’s greatest introverts.)

Another one of the many very interesting examples in the book is of Steve Wozniak, co-founder and ‘nerd soul’ of Apple. His advice in his memoir ‘iWoz’ is:

Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not in a committee. Not on a team.

If this is true, then why don’t we give our employees and learners plenty of privacy and autonomy? In our schools and organisations, we do the exact opposite. This is the era of open plan at the office and group work in class. It’s a contemporary phenomenon which Cain calls the “New Groupthink”. It elevates teamwork above all else. She mentions powerful advocates like Malcolm Gladwell (“Innovation- the heart of the knowledge economy- is fundamentally social”), Warren Bennis (“None of us is as smart as all of us”), Clay Shirky (“Many jobs that we regard as the province of a single mind actually require a crowd”) and many others. We demolish classroom buildings and workplaces if they aren’t set up for maximum group interaction.

Cain points out that today’s preferred style of teaching reflects the business community, where people’s respect for others is based on their verbal abilities, not their originality of insight. You have to be someone who speaks well and calls attention to yourself. It’s an elitism based on something else than merit. The focus on developing leadership skills assumes that everyone aspires to be a leader in the conventional ‘social’ sense of the word, with little consideration for the many introverts who have the potential to attain leadership in theoretical and aesthetic fields.

Cain explains that the New Groupthink did not arise at one precise moment.

Cooperative learning, corporate teamwork, and open plans emerged at different times and for different reasons. But the mighty force that pulled these trends together was the rise of the World Wide Web, which lent both cool and gravitas to the idea of collaboration. On the Internet, wondrous creations were produced via shared brainpower.

Think Wikipedia, Linux, Moodle and so many more.

These collective productions, exponentially greater than the sum of their parts, were so awe-inspiring that we came to revere the hive mind, the wisdom of the crowds, the miracle of crowdsourcing. Collaboration became a sacred concept – the key multiplier for success.

But then we took things a step further than the facts called for. We came to value transparency and to knock down walls – not only online but also in person. We failed to realize that what makes sense for asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions of the Internet might not work as well in face-to-face, politically charged, acoustically noisy confines of an open-plan office [my highlight]. Instead of distinguishing between online and in-person interaction, we used the lessons of one to inform our thinking about the other.

It’s interesting how Cain explains how collaboration works better online and is also much more meaningful and productive, considering at least one third of your learners and workforce are introverts. Also, most complex collaborative problem-solving and creation requires a lot of ‘alone’ time over a considerable period of time and only online collaboration provides that space. In addition, it gives the opportunity for the quiet thinkers to have as ‘loud’ a voice as the vocal extrovert contributors. And more than ever we need to ‘hear’ these voices too.

The Internet’s role in promoting face-to-face group work is especially ironic because the early Web was a medium that enabled bands of often introverted individualists […] to come together to subvert and transcend the usual way of problem-solving.

The earliest open-source creators didn’t share office space – often they didn’t even live in the same country. Their collaboration took place largely in the ether. This is not an insignificant detail. If you had gathered the same people who created Linux, installed them in a giant conference room for a year, and asked them to devise a new operating system, it’s doubtful that anything so revolutionary would have occurred.

Did you know that group brainstorming doesn’t actually work? I didn’t until I read Cain’s overview of some forty years of research in this area, concluding that “business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups.” Yet they remain as popular as ever. And here is another surprise:

The one exception to this is online brainstorming. Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group, the better it performs. The same is true for academic research – professors who work together electronically, from different physical locations, tend to produce research that is more influential than those either working alone or collaborating face-to-face.

Many of Cain’s insights, research results and examples further explain why a lot of people (including me) are not fond of group work in face-to-face workshops, yet love collaborative problem-solving online; and get distracted and irritated in webinars, yet thrive in asynchronous settings (provided the task is interesting). The book goes deep into how the value of collaboration is strongly defined by the space where it is taking place. Does it offer the necessary peace and quiet to concentrate without interruption as well? Can we step away from the group/team for a couple of hours or days so we can do some thinking/researching alone before we contribute further? The ‘passive’ form of collaboration promoted in eWorkshops seems to offer exactly that.

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