Using Networks to Spread Ideas

Distributed Innovation NetworksYesterday I talked about some of the benefits and challenges of distributed innovation within organisations. One of the biggest challenges you face when you make everyone responsible for innovation is this – how do you get new ideas to spread throughout the broader group? This is part of what John and I are studying in our major research project at the moment. We have a three year grant to look at innovation networks within project-based firms. As we’re getting further into the research, it is becoming clear that this issue of idea diffusion is one of the biggest problems that these firms face.

Earlier this week, we did a pilot study for a student’s part of the project. Their question concerns how people search within their networks for information that they need. Because we haven’t made a good video talking about this yet, here is Venessa Miemis explaining some of the issues:

(there’s more good stuff from her here)

So the network facilitates innovation, as well as the diffusion of information – but how? That is what we’re trying to figure out because the ‘how?’ part has generally been treated as a black box. To get at this, we will map networks within four groups of people in one firm that share a knowledge area, but who are spread across a number of different locations. This week, we tested the survey on a small group in the firm, and we learned some interesting things even from this.

Knowledge Network for InnovationThis is one of the networks that we mapped. It shows the links based on responses to the question ‘who provides me with significant knowledge?’ In this case, we defined significant knowledge as that which was essential for solving a work-related problem. There are a couple of interesting things that we learn from this.

The first is that it is a relatively sparse network. This surprised the group – the manager thought that we wouldn’t learn much from this team because they worked very closely together and they are highly cohesive. Still, even within a highly cohesive team, knowledge is not evenly distributed.

The second issue concerns the diamond formed by the four people in the middle of this network. This group of four was at the core of all of the different networks that we mapped. The surprising thing here is that this structure actually reflects the formal hierarchy of the group pretty closely. Organisational network analysis often shows that the informal networks are quite different from the formal structures of the firm. But that doesn’t appear to be the case here. We’ve actually found this in other parts of our research in other firms as well. So we’re starting to think that in distributed innovation networks, hierarchy is actually more important than we expect it to be. This is still very speculative, but it’s potentially interesting.

The bottom line is that when our innovation efforts are distributed, it is critical to understand the structure of our knowledge-sharing networks.

Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

Tim Kastelle




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