Studies have shown that established groups that have a high degree of conflict perform better than those with a high degree of agreement. In fact, when the groups analysed decisions made by individuals, the higher conflict groups showed an average 73% improvement over low conflict groups. [Hall and Williams] This is not to say that conflict is always better. Other studies and common sense have shown the opposite, where conflict reduces effectiveness by draining group members of time, energy, and motivation.
Many people who consider conflict as an absolute evil see only one type of conflict: affective conflict, the emotional and dysfunctional kind, where people judge others personally and vindictively (cf SnipingCriticism). However, when conflict is over ideas not people--cognitive conflict--better decisions are made because more options are considered, more potential problems surface, and more solutions arise. Cognitive conflict is HealthyConflict. [Amason]
The trick, then, is to maintain cognitive conflict without falling down the ever-so-slippery slope of affective conflict. Good leaders have learnt how to do this, to manage conflict. Fortunately, it isn't overly difficult.
Some people believe that by reducing the amount of information on the table, conflict will decrease because there will be fewer points to debate over. However, this is absolutely untrue. More information reduces conflict by ablating arguments based on debatable assumptions, instead setting the discussion on a solid foundation of facts (the ConflictParadox). Presenting more data allows people to disagree over something tangible, whereas in a vacuum of facts causes people to argue based on personal feelings, opinions, self-aggrandizement, or guesses. Often people will attempt to extrapolate the future from the past using mere intuition. The only way to dispute these tactics, short of presenting actual facts, is to dispute the person making them, thus leading the organization towards the dreaded affective conflict.
Many methods are available to inject hard facts into the discussion. The organization can create solid feedback systems. Measure everything, report frequently. This gives the organization's leadership strong controls over what's happening simply because they will be more fully aware of what was going on underneath them. Similarly, the organization can attempt to track external factors, like other similar organizations or partner organizations. This not only allows the organization to respond to external threats, but it also helps it find new opportunities that might solve its current problems. At the very least, the organization can learn from others' mistakes and triumphs.
An OnlineCommunity has a unique ability to provide facts because all of its interactions are done over a technical medium. It's trivial to track many types of data, from which reports analyzing particularly interesting statistics can be automatically generated. The hard cost of doing this is generally up front, in terms of development, although there can be a continuing cost in overhead like processing time and storage, especially for high traffic sites. However, the social cost of tracking the community may be very high as it may invade privacy in ways the community is not comfortable with (cf UserStalking). Consequently, it may be preferable to ask people to track the community manually instead.
(note that I am simplifying the causation in my theoretic information-limited social structure to make it easy to discuss)
(now, I also believe that such a structure is inefficient because there are too few decision makers, and they are too far from the front lines; but that doesn't mean that it can't reduce conflict)
I'm trying to think of a WikiName to name the idea "don't tell people stuff so that they can't argue" (and then to move this part off this page, onto there). I don't think something like needToKnowBasis is good enough because for me, that evokes a security concern rather than a management philosophy. -- BayleShanks
Amason, A.C. () Distinguishing the effects of functional and dysfunctional conflict on strategic decision making: Resolving a paradox of top management teams. Academy of Management Journal, 39(1), 123-148.
Eisenhardt, K., Kahwajy, J., and Bourgeois III, L.J. (1997). Managing conflict: How management teams can have a good fight. Harvard Business Review, July-August, 77-85.
Hall, J. and Williams, M.S. (1966). A comparison of decision-making performances in established and ad-hoc groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, February 217.