Research Summary

Transparency and Problem Solving: Does Privacy Improve Problem Solving in Networked Search?

by Ethan S. Bernstein


If you wanted to design an organizational structure to optimize problem-solving prowess, how would you do it? Would you design perfect transparency (everyone observing everyone), or would you include boundaries for individual or sub-team privacy? In a set of problem-solving lab experiments involving a Clue-like mystery game, Professor Bernstein and his colleagues asked individuals in 16-person organizations to solve problems, recording both their activities and their performance (individually and collectively). Different 16-person organizations solved the same problems but under different degrees of transparency and with varying success. In the end, boundaries played an important role in performance. For example, transparency benefited fact-finding but hindered the process of accurately interpreting those facts develop correct theories/answers.

Professor Bernstein continues to explore how the structure of communication networks can affect the balance between innovative and imitative thinking. Understanding this dynamic is the first step in balancing the need for the system to share information rapidly so that individuals have all the information necessary to solve the problem, and the need to preserve a diversity of theories among participants in order to make the interpretation of information effective.