Movies, Harvard and Community?


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“Once again, the world was spinning in greased grooves.” A great line from “Cannery Row”, the 1982 movie based upon John Steinbeck’s novel.  “Greased grooves” indicating smooth operation without disruption and difficulty. What does a line from a 80s era movie have to do with social collaboration and community management? Stay with me and I will guide you on a journey to “greased grooves”.


Let me start with research about scientific paper authors and the effect of distance on these authors. “Does Collocation Inform the Impact of Collaboration?” is an article I read recently. In the study about Harvard researchers, the authors conducted a 4 year review on “whether the physical proximity of collaborators remained a strong predictor of the scientific impact of their research as measured by citations of the resulting publications.” In other words, in the advent of increased communication technologies, does physical distance matter for research writers?


The resulting empirical evidence did indicate researchers located in close physically proximity were more likely to cite research findings from a nearby researcher than a researcher located across town. We are not even talking about global distances here! The research was performed among three locations within the Harvard area.  Even in a small geographic footprint, a researcher preferred work from someone in the same building as opposed to a building less than 10 city blocks away. Regardless of a seemingly small distance, distance does matter among these researchers.




Leading to Friction and low “µ”?

Leaving Harvard - remember, this is a journey – and this research, I was thinking about distance. What is distance? From a collaboration stand point, distance is an impediment. If we labor together ( Latin basis for collaborate), we are most likely in close proximity.  Even with our excellent collaboration technology – internet enabled meetings – distance can be a negative factor. As I thought about this more, the concept of “friction” came to mind. Friction is defined as the force resisting the relative motion of solid surfaces, fluid layers and/or material elements sliding against each other. Friction can be good – keeps your car on the road! Friction can be bad – darn door won’t open! Based upon the research findings, distance/friction has a demonstrable effect.




In today’s global environment, distance is a very real collaboration factor. Reducing this friction form is critical. Internet based social collaboration reduces this friction form. Looking at the above figure, increasing the angle will likely move the block. Gravity will overcome the friction. However, as the block moves, there is still friction. This friction generates heat and wear. This erodes the block and ramp characteristics. We need more than an angle change. Establishing a community can be likened to increasing the angle. However, we also want to reduce heat and wear.




Heat and wear can be reduced via the friction coefficient. The friction coefficient “µ” is the ratio of friction force between two bodies and the force pressing them together. A high “µ” means great effort to move. Low “µ” provides movement with little effort. Movement with little effort equates to reduced heat and wear. Think Teflon, ice and graphite as low “µ” items. Grease is also a great material with low “µ”!


The Community Payoff!!

We have learned that distance effects collaboration behavior. Launching a community is a method to overcome distance. However, this may not be enough as we know there are other friction factors. In a community form, these factors can be poor layout, confusing navigation, multiple clicks to obtain info, multiple logins, etc. Anything that impedes the customer is friction. In a community setting, it’s our job to reduce friction wherever possible. Similar to sliding on ice, we must deliver information and value to a customer at the lowest possible “µ”. We need to keep their world spinning in greased grooves.