Sunday, September 26, 2010

Skilled synchronized cooperation

One kind of social behavior that is particularly interesting to observe is what we might call "small group skilled cooperation."  This kind of social action arises when --
  • there is a recurring task to be performed by a small defined group of actors;
  • success in the task requires effective performance of specialized actions by members of the group;
  • success in the task requires close coordination in time of the actions of the specialized actors;
  • success in the task requires extensive training of individuals and the group to enhance individual skill and inter-actor coordination.
Here is one example --

Here is another:

These examples come from athletics. But we could also think of examples from other time-sensitive, rapidly unfolding scenes of social coordination: fire fighting, jazz ensembles, urban warfare, and NASCAR pit crews provide others.  In each case two kinds of skillful performance are needed. Each individual needs to be highly skilled at his/her assigned activity; and the individuals need to be skilled at coordinating with other actors and handing off assignments to each other at the right time. Here are the Boston Celtics showing both kinds of skill in a playoff game against the Pistons in 1987:

So the questions here are these -- How do groups or teams get good at this kind of coordination and skilled performance?  And how common is this kind of coordination in everyday social life?

Part of the "how" question is fairly obvious.  The purpose of repetition and training in sports is precisely to allow players to run through possible game scenarios and perfect their individual skills and their timing and coordination.  The quarterback who throws well but consistently misjudges the speed of the receiver will not be successful; and through practice he can improve his timing of the flow of the play.  Each member of the team is expected to perfect his readiness to perform accurately and to do so at precisely the right moment.  Determining the "right moment" requires having a good mental representation of the play as it is developing in real time, to permit the player to make the block or make his cut at the moment needed to complete the play.  This emphasis on training and repetition seems to be uniform wherever a high degree of coordination is required; we don't rely on the spontaneous decision-making of the individuals, but instead try to lay down practiced routines that are invoked when the occasion arises.  And this in turn suggests the need for a sort of phenomenology of skill; we would want to explore the awareness and mental capacities that are associated with high-performance teamwork.

The fact that a team depends on both kinds of skills -- individual and coordinative -- explains why All-Star teams are not very good at basketball and are better at baseball.  All the players are highly skilled as individuals.  But they haven't had the practice together that would be needed for them to function at a high level as a team: recognizing each other's particular strengths and accurately judging their likely behavior and speed in the next several seconds.  In the Celtics video above, we see Dennis Johnson streaking to the basket before Larry Bird steals the inbound pass -- reflecting DJ's understanding of the game situation and his anticipation of the possibility of Bird's actions.  This doesn't seem likely in a team of talented strangers.  Baseball, by contrast, seems like a sport that reflects the sum of the talents of the individuals rather than a "value-added" component derived from close coordination of efforts.  (The double play is an exception to this point, of course.)

The "how common" question is more difficult.  I'm inclined to think that skilled time-sensitive cooperation is not very common in ordinary social life.  There seem to be relatively few examples of cooperative activities that require the high degree of coordination and timing specified here.  There is a lot of division of task in contemporary society, and therefore a lot of coordination and cooperation.  But this rarely requires the second-by-second synchronization that is found in the examples offered here.  Instead, a good sales team may depend on the individual talents of the members of the team, without requiring a high degree of coordination among them.  Sales is more like baseball than basketball.

Perhaps the most common example of an area of common social action that requires this kind of training, skill, and coordination is in the field of emergency response: firefighters, emergency rooms and surgical suites in hospitals, and emergency responders in large cities. By contrast, a newsroom, a factory floor, and a department store each require skill and specialization of task at the individual level; but they require little temporally precise teamwork. The teamwork required in these examples is more conceptual and communicative: one person's work product needs to be aligned with the goals and needs of the other person's work product; and this requires leadership and communication.

(A couple of earlier posts are relevant to this topic: "Acting, Deliberating, Performing;" (link), "Habits, Plans, and Improvisation;" (link), "Being Clumsy" (link), and "What Kind of Knowledge does a Football Coach Have?" (link).)

1 comment:

Siyuan Song said...

As people are more and more aware that the first cost of management is time while not money, more and more for-profit organizations emphasizes the speed to deliver their products or services. So far they are not approaching the level of seconds, but some companies have reached the level of minute. With the help of information technology, it is possible to reach the second level in the future.