Network Structure and Innovation
Steve Borgatti, Carroll School of Management, Boston College
All knowledge is socially constructed, but some
more than others.
In some cases, an individual interacts with a
number of others who may be completely unaware of what problem he is
trying to solve, and then, with the knowledge gained, the individual goes
off by himself and synthesizes a solution.
In other cases, the new knowledge is co-created by interacting
individuals who are bouncing ideas off each other and actively integrating
their different perspectives.
These two kinds of knowledge creation are supported by different kinds
of network structures.
To maximize individual creativity, a person needs access to a diversity
of skills and expertise. The relationships between the knowledge builder
and the resources they draw on do not have to unusually close. They
shouldn't be enemies or competitors (more on them later), but friendly
acquaintances will do fine. All parties need to have some skill at
communicating across disciplines.
The more diverse people a person can call on, the better the
opportunities for knowledge creation. Since individuals are limited in the
number of relationships they can maintain, efficiency is important. A
person who has many colleagues drawn from one discipline and/or social
circle will not access as much diversity of ideas as a person who is
connected to the same number of people drawn from different disciplines,
departments and social circles. People who interact daily come to know
many of the same things, and are in that sense informationally redundant.
In contrast, people who do not interact will often know many things that
the other does not know.
The property of having ties to people who are not in the same social
circles with each other is called betweenness or "structural holes". A person rich in
structural holes has many ties, and the people they are tied to are not
tied to each other.
It's important to realize that in a small group, it is difficult for
many people to have personal networks rich in structural holes. For this
to happen the network has to be fairly diffuse.
Interactive creativity also calls for heterogeneity -- it is the
successful synthesis of different perspectives that creates something new.
But because the interaction in this context is more intense and more
important, the relationship between the people needs to be very good. In
particular, they need to be able to understand each other well. This tends
to mean that the participants are fundamentally similar in language and
background concepts. It also means that affective elements like simply
liking each other are helpful, as are good social skills.
Radical versus Incremental Innovation
People need access to a diversity of skills and knowledge in order to
innovate. This argues for being as well connected as possible. If we want
everyone in a group to be in a position to innovate, this will mean a very
dense network in which everyone is connected to almost everyone.
great for incremental improvements within a well-established paradigm, but
tends to stifle radical innovation. Michael Polanyi wrote the following
about one of his contributions to physics:
"I would never have conceived my theory, let alone have made a great
effort to verify it, if I had been more familiar with major developments
in physics that were taking place. Moreover, my initial ignorance of the
powerful, false objections that were raised against my ideas protected
those ideas from being nipped in the bud."
In other words, if radical innovators are too well connected to the
network, they can get swamped by the prevailing wisdom. As a result,
radical innovation is facilitated by sparser and clumpier networks -- as
in a skunk works.
The answer to the question 'what should my organization's network look
like to enable innovation?' depends on the kind of innovation.
Type of Network to Facilitate Innovation
Type of Innovation