Richard Price

I'm the founder of Academia.edu. The goal of Academia.edu is to get every science PDF ever written on the internet, accessible for free. We want to make science faster and more open. We're hiring engineers!

Aug 12, 2011

Some thoughts about the culture at Academia.edu

Before I got into business, and when I was still at school, I would often read that such-and-such merger didn’t work out because the cultures between the two companies were too different. At the time I never understood what this meant. For me corporate culture just looked like one homogeneous whole.

Having now worked in the professional world for a few years, I think culture is super important, and varies massively and in important ways between companies. This is especially true at the startup stage when you just have a few people in the company. The culture between companies is as different as you find personality traits varying between groups of friends. What kinds of humor do you like? What kinds of degrees of effort do you like? What kinds of judgement calls do you make on product decisions? What goals and what balances are worth striving for?

In Academia.edu we care about a few things. One is passion for building great things, and working to a high standard. Some people really care about doing things to a high standard, and doing a good job, and some really don’t. We strive to hire people in the first bucket.

Another one is the ability to participate well in group dynamics and group decision-making. The goal of group dynamics, I think, is to channel individual passion into a common integrated whole, with everyone fully backing and supporting the end decision. Problems can occur when people aren’t sufficiently passionate, or when they are too passionate about the wrong thing, such as getting their idea selected rather than anyone else’s.

The kind of group dynamics we push for are ones where the question of who came up with the idea is completely irrelevant to everyone in the discussion, including to the person who came up with it. We strive for a dynamic where all that matters is the idea, and that there is no such thing as ego, or ‘giving ground’, or ‘saving face’, or any of those emotions associated with ego.

Another thing that is really important to get this kind of dynamic going is the ability to ensure that your words and contributions to the discussion, and the strength of them, correctly represent the strength of your true opinions: i.e. what you think in the cool light of day. A lot of group discussions go wrong because people get locked onto a certain track of thought, sometimes locked there by themselves, and sometimes locked there by other people, and they feel duty-bound, or saving-face-bound, to defend that track no matter where it takes them. In other words they lose track of what they think about the matter, and what would constitute a measured, balanced response to the situation, and what would constitute a good judgement call in the face of uncertainty, and instead get stuck in their line of argument, and end up defending something a viewpoint that, in the cool light of day, wouldn’t have subscribed to at all.

Maintaining a sense of good judgement when there are multiple points of view, and even when there is someone in the group who is looking to polarize things, is really important. It’s really important not to lose your head, and to retain your judgement, so if you find yourself defending something that no longer makes sense, you can say ‘wow, this line of thinking clearly has problems’.

It’s also really important for credibility. If you say something is good or bad, it’s really important for the rest of the group to know that is what you really think, and you’re not just being forced into that judgement by the dialectical situation you have found yourself in. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, and the most solid group of people, if people are tired, then you can get discussions that you can tell aren’t heading in a very promising direction. It’s really good for everyone to have a sense of that point in a discussion, and to be able to agree just to cut the discussion off, and delay the decision until a later point, perhaps the next day.

I feel that successful group decision-making requires constant vigilance with regard to the emotional state of the discussion. Are the emotions directed at the right things, i.e. the product getting better, users being happier etc? Or have they started to shift towards the wrong things, i.e. someone feeling re-buffed and then digging their heels in a bit stronger as a result of feeling rebuffed? Usually if everyone is vigilant to the emotional state of the discussion, and where it’s heading, any slight deviances from the path to a good decision can be picked up on and corrected.

The definition of successful group decision making I think is where the decision that emerges is as good or better than what any subset of the group could have come up with. I feel that we achieve that at Academia.edu. We are super careful with who we hire, and look really carefully for the ability to channel passion in the right direction, and maintain solid judgement no matter what craziness is going on around you. 

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