Names and Research Topics

I could make this piece heavily researched and exhaustive, but I’m not going to. This is just for fun, well, kind of.

One of my jobs in a lot of the projects I have worked on has been to put together the reference list. As you get deeper and deeper into a topic, the names of the researchers whose work you cite the most becomes more and more familiar. I’ve also met a number of these people as well now. My area of research has primarily been topics around TMS. So let’s look at some of the top articles from google scholar search of TMS (plus some more that I like):

Hollingshead (1998) x2

Hollingshead and Brandon (2003)

Brandon and Hollingshead (2004)

Lewis (2003)

Lewis (2004)

Lewis et al. (2005)

Lewis et al. (2007)

Lee et al. (2014)

Liang et al. (1995)

Moreland (1999)

Mell et al. (2014)

Ren and Argote (2012)

Obviously, we have a few people that are very prolific in the literature. But, we also have a range of letters in the alphabet that seem somewhat over-represented. Why are there so many important researchers in TMS whose names begin with an L? Lee, Lewis, Lange, Liang, Levine, etc. There are also several Ms. My last names is Kush so there’s a K if I want to throw my name in too and a Keller on Lewis et al (2007). Probably not actually weird if you look at common names, but has always been amusing to me.

TMS and Groupthink

I was giving a talk recently about some of my work on transactive memory systems (TMS). TMS is a psychological concept (though now most heavily researched in management-related areas) that proposes that individuals begin relying on one another for knowledge stores over time. I’ve spoken about this concept a few times in the past if you want to scroll back in the blog. Anyway, in teams research, we talk about TMS as a concept that helps explain why groups perform better over time (Moreland, 1999). Typically, as individuals work together, each member will demonstrate a predisposition based on training, experience, etc. for some area of work. Other members will recognize a member’s ability and will defer to that member to carry out work in that area. This ‘implicit coordination’ and ability to develop specialization in their preferred area, is what lead’s to performance improvement in teams.

As I was giving the talk, one of the faculty asked me about the relationship between TMS and ‘groupthink’. ‘Groupthink’ is a popular psychological idea that attempts to explain why teams composed of the best members sometimes make bad decisions. Some of the famous examples are the Bay of Pigs Disaster or the Challenger explosion. In those cases, there were team members who had a suspicion that the wrong decision was being made, but they were unwilling to share their information for fear that they would be criticized. The concept is popular and frequently taught in management classes, but is not particularly heavily researched. From my understanding, groupthink is the outcome of an environment that is not psychologically safe (Edmondson, 1999). If it is not part of the culture to be open and respectful of other’s critiques, then it may be quite easy to keep your thoughts to yourselves.

So, what then of the relationship of TMS and groupthink within a team? TMS is in part about trusting experts’ opinions and deferring decision making based on background knowledge. It is therefore fundamentally about members within the team having more autonomy in their areas of work and interfering less in areas outside of their expertise. If a decision is being made about an option that is not as related to my expertise, will I be willing to share my thoughts? Obviously, we hope that there is effective leadership within the team that may mitigate some of these issues. I think it would be plausible, however if members have divided their expertise up, that team members may not feel comfortable making comments on other’s areas of expertise.  Most of the time, I am not assessing team’s decision-making abilities in my work so I don’t have that first hand experience.

A friend of mine, Julija Mell, ran a decision-making experiment with some colleagues in 2014, looking at a variety of characteristics related to TMS and their effect on good decisions being made within a team. Julija found that if information about who knows what was distributed in such a way to make it easier to reveal said information (and thus jump-start TMS) that this led to groups retrieving each other’s information more. Moreover, members were more likely to engage and discuss their perspectives the more they retrieved other’s knowledge (called information elaboration in the paper). This process led to more effective decisions being made. So, this study would suggest that maybe, when a group has a well-functioning TMS, they use that information to have a conversation about the best decision to make, using the knowledge of who knows what to make sure the best information is used in that assessment.

I think that there should probably be some more investigation into whether TMS could lead to decision complacency within teams, but it looks like the processes that keep a TMS updated, may also serve to mitigate possible negative effects of groupthink. It could be that these processes don’t work as well in teams that have been together a long time, but that is an empirical question. Time to get to work I suppose!


Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly44(2), 350-383.

Mell, J. N., Van Knippenberg, D., & Van Ginkel, W. P. (2014). The catalyst effect: The impact of transactive memory system structure on team performance. Academy of Management Journal57(4), 1154-1173.

Moreland, R. L. (1999). Transactive memory: Learning who knows what in work groups and organizations. In L. L. Thompson, J. M. Levine, & D. M. Messick (Eds.), Shared cognition in organizations: The management of knowledge. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

On being done with a project

Back in 2012, I began in earnest on a project that reached its last milestone on March 30, 2018. My first publication of a co-authored paper in an academic journal. You can find it here:

There are many other academics into their second year who have more publications than me. It can be very difficult to get a job at one of our top tier schools without one more more publications in a top-tier publications. Due to the nature of my work, I imagine I will be lucky to have a dozen opportunities to engage in a project like this in my career. 

Data collection took about 14 months, data analysis took years, we (Linda Argote, Brandy Aven, and myself) wrote for months even before submission, and there were of course the slow but thorough series of peer reviews we received. We collected 109 groups for this paper. Each session was 2 hours and required about a half hour on either side to setup. I probably had to cancel 20-25 sessions due to no shows. In aggregate, we probably easily used 450 hours of lab time to collect the data for this study. I was there for most, but not all of it (I had some wonderful RAs). The time works out to something like an hour a day, every day, throughout the data collection period.

I wasn't always happy about being the lab, the frustrations of late or no-show participants, or technical problems. But, I thought we were onto something, and it's wonderful to get validation from others that we were.