The Cohort Conundrum

20Jun08

What has ten thumbs and loves alliterative education? This guy!

As a professional college student of the 21st century business education system, there are a few quirks of the experience that I will never forget come hell or hard drive crash. Any business student will tell you that group work is the name of the game, and if you can’t play nice, there will always be an overtime. No one gets along with everyone (just ask OPEC) but the business powers that be want every student of the field to learn the importance of relationship building.

However, not all those relationships are built on the rock, so to speak, and some require a renovation effort such that Frank Lloyd Wright would roll out of his casket to avoid the job.

The word cohort was first used to describe a legion of soldiers in the roman army. A cohort ate together, fought together, and wrote numerals together, all working to forge a cohesive unit and maximize productivity. Today, it’s no longer true that pillaging and broom-helmet wearing does a cohort make: a cohort is simply a group of individuals working toward a collective goal or drawn together by a common purpose (OPEC says, “See, NYT? A cohort, not a cartel…”).

A cohort can be founded on any commonality, from grades to hobbies to tax brackets. We identify ourselves through our associations faster than any other trait. If I was asked to describe myself in a few sentences, I’d tell you that I’m a student at the University of Oregon, I volunteer for Planned Parenthood, I have an internship with Ernst & Young LLP this summer, and I turn 21 in less than three weeks. You will possibly identify with one or more of my associations, depending on whether you’re an accounting major as well or just a poor hapless minor strung along by the cruel indignance of an unjust societal dictate.

Yesterday, over a fountain of iced tea and an afternoon of river watching, I had an interesting conversation about the benefits (and detriments) of a cohort group. Bringing together like-minded people to achieve goals is fine and dandy, but what happens when a cohort takes a turn for the worse? What can cause the relations within a group of common minds to sour? First, let’s take a look at the anatomy of a few breeds of cohort:

The Come Together Cohort: This is a group coming together to achieve a particular goal. Political activists, your teammates for a class project, and the members of N*SYNC all fall into this category. As the queen ant remarks in A Bug’s Life, you come, you eat, you leave, and that’s the cohort’s lot in life. When the task is done, so is the group (at least officially).

The Clique-y Cohort: Just because everyone’s name is on the building, doesn’t mean everyone’s say has the same weight. This is where corporate culture and group dynamics play the biggest role, especially in dictating how work gets done and who gets invited for drinks afterwards.

The Casual Cohort: Here is the Facebook gold mine. Little common agenda, no assigned project, and nothing to lose by being friends with everyone (like running for senator of Pennsylvania).

The underlying differences between these types are not so much subtle as they are fluid. As a group finishes a special task in the boardroom (Come Together), they may leave for happy hour in a merry band of cohesion (Casual). Delineating the types of cohort is nowhere near as useful as leveraging them. In other words, a cohort is only as effective as the motives of its members.

Here’s a mini case study: take 35 individuals with GPAs over 3.5, impressive extra-curricular involvement records, and no direct experience in a professional business school. Put all of them in core business classes together and create a bevy of group projects for them to hone their people skills. Give them noble goals such as being a leader among their peers, getting involved in student clubs and committees, and interacting with each other outside of class. Provide a common space for them to work, relax, and study together removed from those outside the cohort.

Now tell them that in order to get As in their classes, they must out-perform the majority of the cohort.

I predict that all three cohort breeds will raise a hand at different points during this experiment, and the most successful members of the cohort will be the ones who know when to push the Come Together mindset and when to back off into the Casual instead. I portend catastrophic downturns in morale and bitter rivalries that leave egos bruised and confidence battered. But, I also see kindred spirits and raised bars leading to higher quality performance. The cohort experience is a widespread, pervasive piece of our personal framework, and taking the step to participate in the adventure rarely goes unrewarded.

I wonder if OPEC accepts Facebook friend requests from strangers…

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2 Responses to “The Cohort Conundrum”

  1. 1 Left of the Dial

    I wonder where you could be getting the idea of this supposed cohort you speak of. Sounds totally fictionalized to me.

    More importantly, I have 9 different tracks on my iPod called “Come Together”, and for some reason at the moment that seems relevant. And only 4 of them are covers of the Beatles song.

  2. 2 Katie Hulse

    Krisin, that picture of the guy from A bug’s life ROCKS. Hope your internship goes well, and you better have a drink for me on your 21st!


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