Distributed Teams in the Living Laboratory. Applications of Transactive Memory


There are three main cognitive processes of memory, encoding, storage, and retrieval (Tulving and Thomson 1973). Information enters memory during encoding, is archived for future access during storage, and is retrieved during the access stage. At each stage, problems may occur that degrade the accuracy of the memory, such as incorrect encoding. It is also possible that at each stage to have the information fall out of memory, as in the case with forgetfulness. To reduce these errors, humans often rely on cognitive artifacts to create lasting accurate memory (Hutchins 1995). This activity, known as distributed cognition, suggests that physical objects acting as cognitive artifacts, are particularly effective at reducing incorrect coding errors and forgetfulness (Norman 1991, Nemeth et al. 2004). Items such as notepads, meeting calendars, and shopping lists are examples of cognitive artifacts employed in our everyday lives. In the seminal research on distributed cognition, Hutchins (1995) found that these cognitive artifacts were critical in all stages of decision making, coordination, and collaboration, as demonstrated in his time observing large sea vessel operations. Although this research is seminal in the distributed cognition literature, it has become dated as computing and technology have continued to mature. With this maturation, and new technologies, the realm of possible distributed cognitive artifacts has expanded. People are able to leverage technology such as mobile devices, and the cloud, to maintain a larger set of distributed cognitive artifacts that can be easily and readily accessed.

Even with this expanded set of possibilities, cognitive artifacts are only useful for maintaining an individual’s internal knowledge, and they are limited by the efficacy of the corresponding linkage in the human cognitive structures. Even a highly detailed cognitive artifact, such as technical notes, or systematic directions, are only as useful as the internal knowledge possessed by the individual to decode and utilize their meaning. For example, a person writing down a complex mathematical formula will not find the notation very useful as a memory aid if they lack the mathematical knowledge to understand and apply its meaning.

A potential mitigation to this is to keep more detailed artifacts, outlining lists, and processes of knowledge; however, these can add to data overload and can be more cumbersome to create and possess. An alternate method, from the field of team cognition, is to leverage the team mind. At its roots, team cognition is concerned with the emergence of a unique entity that forms from “the interplay of the individual cognitions of each team member and team process behaviors” (Cooke et al. 2004). Building off this definition, aspects of team cognition can be broken down into two components, the team processes that emerge as a part of the collaboration, and the knowledge situated within and distributed across the team. Although both components are necessary aspects of team’s cognitive behaviors, team knowledge can have similar functionalities as distributed cognition. When individuals lack the requisite internal knowledge to make use of cognitive artifacts, they must access their transactive memory—or knowledge of other’s knowledge. As opposed to traditional distributed cognition, distributed team cognition allows individuals access to knowledge, as well as skills and abilities to leverage that knowledge outside of their own expertise. On account of this, numerous researchers have demonstrated a positive correlation between transactive memory and team performance (e.g., Wegner et al. 1985, Wegner 1995, 1987, Hollingshead 2001, Ariff et al. 2012, 2013, Mell et al. 2014).

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