Networks And Innovation

Recent article in the FT on the importance of networks in innovation (you may need to register to read the complete article):

Why aren’t businesses and organisations more innovative? Are they filled with dull, unimaginative people? Are they lacking crucial “core competencies”? Or are their people just not working hard enough?

The answer to those last three questions is no, no and no. Something else must explain the inability of companies to display greater innovative flair. What is it?

The problem for senior managers is that, as you walk round the business or study the organisational chart, nothing much may seem to be wrong. People are at their desks or in meeting rooms, hard at work. Something that looks like two-way communication appears to be taking place. And then there are all those e-mails, instant messages and texts. You can be confident that good ideas must be flowing freely within the organisation.

Maybe some social network analysis might be helpful? This approach can certainly help provide a better understanding of the current state of networks and indicate strengths and weaknesses. The tricky problem of addressing weaknesses still remains of course. However at least there is a focused problem that can be addressed as compared to a vague feeling that things aren’t quite right.

According to Rob Cross, of the University of Virginia, some of the common reasons that existing networks don’t deliver include:

  • poor internal communication
  • silo mentality (however unintentional)
  • too big and sprawling (focus on quality not quantity)
  • management networks – are they too much in the comfort zone – distinguish between support and creative networks
  • no special measures to shake things up – need more than going off-site for a brainstorm now and again
  • no adventurous use of technology to help overcome barriers eg use of flashing name badges!
  • ‘bad’ gate-keepers – they may be over-cautious
  • ‘low energy’ environment – people are not fired up enough by management

Even in the exciting, leading-edge world of innovation, unglamorous management basics matter. If new employees are not brought on board properly – induction – then no amount of exhortation will get them to create a network. You can kit everybody out with Google’s new Wave system, which combines all the latest communication and social networking features, but if the right people are prevented by bad gatekeepers or energy-sapping bosses from working together, nothing will come of it.

You need to understand how informal, unseen networks can be encouraged to work to your benefit. This is where innovation will come from.

On the surface, things at your company may look fine. Dig deeper. Are the right people talking to each other? In the worst cases, as the consultant Jon Katzenbach once put it, everyone is smiling, but the building is on fire.

As a first informal exercise, you could determine your own personal network, using a web tool like Keyhubs or even just pencil-and-paper. This should give a good flavour of the potential benefit of network analysis in a simple but interesting setting.

Scaling this up to a whole organisation is much more difficult of course but can potentially be just as illuminating.

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One Response to Networks And Innovation

  1. […] it might also be helpful to review relationships on an occasional basis using a simple social network approach. This is very helpful for developing an understanding of the bigger […]

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