What are Innovation Networks, and Why Should You Care?

I did some media training last week, which was interesting. In the course of the morning, I had to think about the main messages I would like to communicate to people about my research. The key one is that the networks that people form within innovating groups have an enormous impact on how successfully the groups innovate. Consequently, if you are trying to manage innovation within an organisation, you will be able to do this more effectively if you understand the networks.

What do I mean by networks? We use social network analysis, which looks at the ways that people connect with each other. People are the nodes within the network, and the connections can be formed in a number of ways. We tend to look at knowledge-sharing connections. So we ask questions like:

  • Who do you regularly interact with?
  • Who gives you information that you need to do your job?
  • Who is a source of new ideas for you?
  • Who give you help when you need to solve problem related to your work?

When we get most of the people within a group to answer these questions, then we can map out the connections between people to see what the network looks like. The figure below is a problem-solving network. This is a group of 130 people who answered the last question on this list.

There are several things that you can tell just by looking at the diagram. The first is that there are many people that aren’t in the network at all – they have no connections. The second is that there is a geographical split – the red dots are people in one location, while the green ones represent people in an office on the other side of the country. The split between the two groups is obvious. The third issue is harder to tell just from looking at the diagram, but the people that connect the two regional groups together tend to be managers (bigger circles). All of these issues have the potential to restrict the flow of information within the group as a whole.

All of these observations reflect the structure of the network (which is usually measured stastically, rather than just looking at the pictures – to learn more about that, check out this terrific introduction to networks from Howare Rheingold). The potential problems within this group suggest that it might not be as innovative as a team with a more coherent structure. When we showed these results to the managers of the team, they were anxious to take steps to improve the flow of knowledge. Some of the steps that you can take are described in this review of the latest book by Rob Cross:

Network analysis can also help when you bring employees together on project teams. Too often, certain voices have the leader’s ear, but a network analysis that maps information flow and problem-solving collaborations may reveal certain experts on the team need to be given a greater voice in decision-making.

The more innovation networks that we map, the more we learn about the impact that network structures have on innovation performance. So that’s a quick recap of what innovation networks are, and why analysing them might help make an organisation more innovative.

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