History

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, I played a lot (maybe a little TOO much) of pool.  Eight-ball, nine-ball, straight pool, you name it.  Except for any billiards game on a table that has no pockets -  I just couldn't figure out those games.  Maybe I just got frustrated that I never sank a ball.

Anyway, I played a couple of times a week with pretty much the same group of four or five guys.  We played together for a few years and had a great time improving our playing ability by learning from each other.  Obviously, our improvement increased more the more we played with each other and in particular with the greater the total number of games we played.  Occasionally one of us would show or tell the rest of the group about some new and interesting pool-playing skill they learned from a book or magazine or TV show, but that was about it for learning new skills.  After a few months of playing with these guys, I noticed that my pool-playing ability had kind of plateaued and I was no longer getting better with any regularity.  It was obvious that playing with the same group of people increased my performance and playing even more with that same group would increase my performance more, but seemingly at a decreasing rate compared to when I first started playing with them.  Basically, it seemed that I had improved my skill by playing with this group of guys, but playing with them any longer was not going to drastically increase my playing performance.  (You may have had this same experience in an activity you do - you get better for awhile but then your performance improvement slows down.  The issue is that you've pretty much learned everything you can from the people with whom you're interacting in the activity, and your performance will increase only slighly with more repetition of the same activity with that same group.  You can still have fun doing the activity with that group, of course, but you're not going to learn much new from them on a regular or ongoing basis.)


Anyway, I'd then play in a pool tournament (and sometimes win) against a new set of players, and I noticed that my pool-playing ability would increase, sometimes very noticeably.  This was obviously because the people I played with in the tournament had, in some aspect of the game, different (and sometimes better) tactics, techniques, or procedures than I.  If they played a shot differently than I would have, I noticed if the outcome was better than I would have expected with my shot choice.  If their outcome was better, I then tried to adopt into my game the action they had taken.

Many years later, while doing human-system interaction research, I was again exposed to this "learning curve" effect in areas other than playing pool.  That is, when we interact with others in completing some task, and if we care enough to try to improve our performance on that task, we will adopt tactics, techniques, and procedures that we see in others that we do not currently have, and that will improve our task performance.

Premise

 

The premise of much of my recent research is based on recognizing the change in my pool-playing performance described above.  At first I believed that simply playing pool a lot with the same group of guys would improve my pool-playing skill, and this was true, but only up to a point.  In terms of my connectivity research, this could be summarized as "the more connections one makes in completing a standardized task, the higher the probability that the individual's performance will improve."  (Note that this assertion about performance is made as a probabilistic statement; "more connections" does not guarantee improved performance.)

However, there is more to performance improvement than the total number of connections one makes in completing a task.  Total number of connections is important in genearlly improving one's skillset, but it is secondary to continually improving one's performance on a regular basis and over a long period of time.  What becomes more important than the total number of connections one makes is the total number of DIFFERENT or UNIQUE connections one makes.  My experience in playing pool showed me that my performance improvements were much more a function of playing a small number games with a large group of people than playing a large number of games with a small group of people.  My total number of "connections" (in this case, the number of games of pool played against someone else) might turn out to be the same, but the increase in my own performance would be vastly different.  For example, I could reach 500 total "connections" (in this case, 500 games of pool) two very different ways.  For example, I could play 100 games each against five different people, or I could play five games each against 100 different people.  My own experience showed me that a small number of connections to a large group of individuals (by playing in a tournament vs. playing with my regular group) is worth more in improving my own task performance than a large number of connections to a small group of individuals.  That is the premise of my recent research and the focus of this website.

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