Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Does Breaking Social Networks Encourage Innovation?

In doing some background work on innovation I came across an article by Chris Trimble (Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth) publish last year on the impact of social networks on the ability of an organization to innovate.

More often than not, innovation results from an unexpected combinations of ideas, or chance meetings of people with complimentary perspectives. Within most organizations innovation is not viewed as an organizational process but the focus of a work group of individuals that comprise their own social network. However, aspiring innovators within organizations can often be handicapped by existing social networks. This is not because these individuals lack the creativity or other skills to innovate, but instead are functionally out of the innovation loop because the nature of their jobs keeps them from interacting with the "innovative" social networks.

Once an organization has reached a level where it is sustaining itself the focus changes to becoming efficient. Employees are pulled into specialized roles and tasks and are gathered together in social groups based on processes. Each employee's web of social connections therefore mirrors the way their work is organized. As Trimble points out, most social connections are made with others with closely related specialties, who share similar perspectives, and are shaped by the demands of the same customers.

Being a part of a social network for a prolonged period of time influences individuals in significant ways. Individuals that have been in a specific social network for a long period of time has likely internalizing the "ways of thinking" (groupthink) of that network. Yet, innovation initiatives are often most successful when there is an unusual interaction between employees. How many brainstorming or strategic planning sessions start off by counting off and creating new groups? Trimble therefore argues that while enriching existing social networks accelerates idea generation, the breaking of social networks is often required to convert vision to reality.

Trimble states that "Breaking networks is the only way to prepare an organization to take innovation efforts beyond mere ideas. You can train an individual about what an innovation is and why it demands different behavior, but you can't retrain an organization simply by training the individuals within it. The individuals may acquire knowledge, but organizations are more powerful than individuals..."

Yes, organizations are more powerful than the individuals from which they are comprised (the whole is greater the the sum of its parts). Therefore, organizational leaders that are serious about building an organization with the capacity for strategic innovation cannot simply keep a few innovators close by that "do" innovation. They need an organization built to innovate. Reorganizations are an opportunity to break those involved with an innovation out of their existing social networks, and force them to forge new relationships and new networks from scratch.

Breaking networks takes a deliberate effort and is tricky because networks are made up of relationships between people, and relationships are cultivated over time. Social networks are often built upon relationships that often go beyond work and becomes the foundation for trust. Breaking these social networks would mean disrupting the social capital that has been built within parts of the organization. The challenge is that any group of people that have invested time and effort into a relationship or social network and have built a 'circle of trust' are reluctant simply to walk away.

Still, one can build a strong argument that innovation is more likely to occur when an organization moves from one that aspires to enhance existing social networks to one that breaks them, then rebuilds them over again. Sphere: Related Content

1 comment:

Eric Schnell said...

I also came across this section in King and Anderson's Managing Innovation and Change:

"many team building iniatives are designed to maximize the cohesion and sense of identity within the group...such groups are likely to suffer from 'groupthink'. Unless messures are taken to guard against it, there is a danger that highly cohesive teams may be insufficiently critical of innovations they propose and support, and fail to give adequate consideration to alternatives. This could lead to a deterioration in the quality, though not necessarily the quantity, of innovations produced by the group.