Using Networks to Spread Ideas

Yesterday 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.


This 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.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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11 thoughts on “Using Networks to Spread Ideas

  1. Tim –
    Great post here. I like the bottom line comment as well. Your finding is something I can anecdotally confirm working across a large organization that is highly geographically dispersed. No shocker, but in order to really drive innovation you need to identify and stitch together the folks who have a broad understanding of their subject matter and who are willing to work collaboratively in a subject matter they are less familiar with. Regardless of where they are physically located. Colocation is great but sometimes it’s just not practical. But even if you’re co-located, if you’ve got the wrong set of people, don’t expect innovation to thrive.

    Anyway, nice post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for the input Parker! It’s a huge challenge to innovate while dispersed. I think you’re exactly right in saying that it is critical to get the right set of people – that’s definitely more important than having the right tools or procedures, or even the right network structure!

  3. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for referencing me! Great post, I’m so interested in your research. The results (speculations) make sense. You can’t pin down emergence/innovation, but you CAN create an environment that will facilitate it.

    Your findings may unlock some huge implications for how we can begin self-assembling into networks that create real change.

  4. Thanks Venessa! I’m really excited by the research – definitely looking forward to this time next year when we’ll have a ton of networks mapped. Then we’ll have a much better idea of what it is telling us…
    And, it’s easy enough to reference you when you have such great material yourself!

  5. Tim/Venessa,
    Take a look at this excellent paper by Ron Burt — “Social Origin of Good Ideas” People at particular network locations, almost can’t help but get good ideas… as long as they are awake and paying attention.


  6. Interesting Tim.

    I would expect that in your target – project-based firms – that networks would more closely align with formal heirarchy than in more traditional department-based firms because the higher ends of the heirarchy are responsible for allocating resources across multiple projects and tend to be promoted from within more often.

    Just a hypothesis. :-)


  7. I think that is almost certainly true Braden. We’re working through a few different ideas on that one. Another that I think is probably correct is that most of their innovation happens within the cross-project groups, rather than within the project groups. In any case, it is turning out to be a very interesting research project!

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