By Emma Macmillan
Not long ago, experts from a variety of fields—management, psychology, sociology, and anthropology—spent two days in a room talking about culture. After a few hours with little progress and much frustration, someone suggested that everyone in the group define what culture means to them. It didn’t take long before they realized every single person had a different interpretation.
In order to move forward, they decided to take a step back and create a working definition of culture to avoid further conflicting discussions. “We were using the same word, but thinking about a very different concept,” says Joan Rentsch, professor of communication studies and director of UT’s Integrative Organizational Research Laboratory.
Rentsch’s research focuses on the intricacies of group communication. She specializes in helping teams of people with different expertise solve complex problems.
“Research shows that when people work together to solve a problem, they tend to talk about information they hold in common but disregard the unique information they hold,” Rentsch says. “This bias puts a decision-making team at a disadvantage, because the team is not capitalizing on all of its available knowledge.”
Consider a team of consultants hired to make recommendations for constructing a building. The materials expert suggests the structure should be made of brick because of its durability, while the financial expert proposes wood to satisfy the client’s financial constraints. By explaining their reasoning, team members point out how different pieces of information fit together. Based on new knowledge, a decision is made to build two sides with brick and two sides with wood.
“In this scenario, experts successfully conveyed their unique knowledge, which made for a creative solution,” Rentsch explains. “If either expert had failed to communicate his or her expertise clearly, the team likely would have failed to find a solution to the problem.”
Although Rentsch’s research is primarily aimed at the workplace, it’s applicable to just about any team tasked with making complex decisions. “Ideally, team members should pull knowledge, expertise, and relevant information together to be able to make an informed decision,” Rentsch says.
Often faced with life-or-death situations, military personnel need to be able to make quick and well-formed decisions in the field. To help improve these skills, Rentsch and her research colleagues used a complex realistic task developed by the US Navy to extract valuable information from team members and use expert knowledge to arrive at a solution.
The simulated task, conceived with the help of Navy SEALs, involved rescuing stranded workers on an island. Each team consisted of three UT students in different rooms communicating virtually, similar to an online chat. To manage expertise, Rentsch gave each team member a packet of unique information. One individual knew about the island’s environment, one knew about available assets, and the other had intelligence on the workers and the island. All team members knew the location and timeframe for completing the rescue and were given an hour to solve the problem.
“If we left them to their own devices, we would have likely found what past researchers have found,” Rentsch says. “They would have discussed commonly held information at the expense of discussing uniquely held information.”
However, the experiment provided some of the student teams additional training in “schema-enriched communication” prior to the task. Participants were given a practice assignment to demonstrate effective ways to communicate. Speakers were instructed to explain the relevance of information and to connect their unique knowledge to other available information.
Rentsch emphasizes that communication is a two-way street. Information senders need to articulate a connection, but if that connection isn’t understood, it is the receiver’s responsibility to draw out that information.
“In addition to sharing information, team members had to convey and incorporate knowledge with what they already knew,” Rentsch says.
To measure how well expertise was communicated, each participant was tested on knowledge that only other team members had at the beginning of the experiment. For example, could team members who were not given information about available assets successfully answer questions about assets?
Teams were also evaluated on how well they understood the problem and whether they shared enough information to arrive at an optimal solution.
As expected, Rentsch found that teams whose members received extra communication training built more team knowledge and were better able to understand and use shared information. In those cases, the solution was also higher in quality.
The next time your team is struggling for an answer, don’t leave vital information untapped. Everyone—from Navy SEALs to engineers, doctors, bankers, or lawyers—will benefit from sharing their expertise.