For nearly three decades, Professor Gary Olson has been working to bring distant people closer together. “Collaboration, whether it’s in the workplace or someplace else, is complicated,” he says. “My goal is understanding how to do it well — and then helping people put that knowledge to work.” One challenge is encouraging people to appreciate and celebrate cultural differences in a business environment. “As technology continues to make the world smaller, we’re increasingly likely to be interacting with colleagues who have different approaches to work and life,” he says.
As Professor Olson sees it, collaboration can yield positive results in any arena. Through his work with the Climate Co-Lab, headquartered at MIT, he is promoting the power of partnership by engaging the public in discussions about climate change. The project allows people to experiment with different climate models, to connect with experts in the field and to propose novel solutions. “Harnessing collective intelligence, or ‘citizen science,’ can produce new kinds of insights,” he says. “Our goal is to leverage collective problem solving to make real headway on serious problems.”
Professor Olson’s seminal work, Distance Matters, redefined the way businesses foster teamwork among personnel in far-flung locations. Today, he works with companies like Google to improve employee collaborations both internationally and closer to home. “Google’s California headquarters is home to a huge number of professionals from India and China,” Professor Olson says. “What’s surprising is that there are a lot of issues about how diverse groups work together, even when meeting face to face.” It’s fascinating work with tangible impact: “As we learn more about the cultural aspects of collaboration, we are developing practical tools that facilitate success, regardless of geographic proximity.”