Silo study finds separate benefits
There is a big push to break down the ‘silos’ that prevent cross-disciple communication in science, but new research suggests it is possible to go too far.
A recent study in the US found that putting everyone on the same page could be the enemy of innovation.
Instead, it suggests that having some fragmentation allows people to converge on a solution they would be able to find alone.
Researchers at Arizona State University conducted experiments in which 144 volunteers — split into six-person groups — were given a computer-based challenge to develop a remedy to fight a virus.
One group of volunteers got to see what the others in their team were doing as they did it, while in other groups, each person could only see what one other individual in their team was up to.
The results showed those in the more fragmented team actually better at identifying several different solutions than the team in which everyone could learn from all other members.
“If people are really connected to each other, we know that people learn from successful individuals, and the problem with that is that people converge on the same solution,” said lead author and anthropologist Dr Maxime Derex.
It appears that partially-connected populations split information into subgroups, which tend to share information internally but less so between subgroups.
This, the researchers say, enables ach subgroup to develop its own unique solutions.
“We know that this cultural diversity is really important because combination is one of the main forms of innovation; people combine a lot of stuff to produce new technology,” Dr Derex said.
The anthropologists believe this might explain the steep increase in technological and cultural complexity in the Upper Paleolithic period of human history, around 40,000 years ago.
This period saw an increase in body decorations, hunting technologies, and a rapid movement of tools and raw materials over long distances.
“Contacts between previously isolated groups could have brought different skills and cultural traits together and may have led to increased cultural complexity,” the researchers wrote.
The study suggests there is a “sweet spot” of cultural fragmentation that encourages innovation but also gives ideas the room to take shape, and spread.
“We are really well connected today but we are interacting preferentially with specific individuals within society, so we still have structure in our populations,” Dr Derex said.
But it is a very fine line, he says, as innovation can be stifled by sub-groups that are too fragmented and so cannot communicate with each other.
“That's maybe why multi-disciplinary [research] is really important, because people are exploring different solutions and they have different problems but you can use knowledge from one field in another field,” Dr Derex said.
“You have to connect people and exchange knowledge between fields.”
The study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.