A while ago Tim wrote an excellent post on the difference between networking and network structure. It’s one of my favorite posts and it’s among the most popular on the blog. Just to recap the main idea from that post – some network structures are better at supporting innovation and we need to understand how we can form these structures better.
As Tim says, there is a lot of evidence that bridging communities that don’t communicate is a precursor to innovation. In technical terms, this is called bridging a ‘structural hole’ and we can see this in different accounts of creativity and breakthroughs in the arts, sciences and business. Also, the divisioning of organizations and the consequent creation of silos is a creator of structural holes that puts up a barrier to innovation. The diagram below shows a network map where person 5 is bridging a structural hole.
Having a lot of contacts through being an active ‘networker’ will not support innovation if we just keep networking with people who are similar to ourselves and our friends. This might create bigger and denser clusters (e.g. nodes 1,2,3 and 4 in the diagram) but won’t help us to bridge clusters. In other words, the number of contacts that we have matters a lot less than the question of who our contacts are with.
One of the big questions in our research is how networks evolve and we are starting to understand how personality types affect the formation of innovation networks. The obvious statement to make is that extroverts will be essential to encourage innovation networks because they form and maintain contacts. However, this assumption falls into the networking trap where we assume that more contacts are better.
One of our PhD students, John Chen, is looking at small business networks and he has found that one particular psychological characteristic is highly correlated with the person’s positioning in the central points of networks where they can bridge groups and coordinate activity. This particular trait is called ‘self monitoring’ and is closely related to what I would call social adaptability.
People with high self-monitoring characteristics are aware of their own personality and can adapt it to suit different groups and circumstances. This is quite different from simply being ‘outgoing’. When Tim and I meet people in organizations who are playing key bridging roles they are very skilled in different social settings, but I wouldn’t describe all of them as being particularly extroverted.
While we still need to do a lot more to develop this research, I think this finding has some immediate implications:
We can’t assume that the extroverted people who get the most profile are necessarily the best organizational bridges. It’s really important to understand the network before making changes to the organization.
While some people have natural self-monitoring skills, it’s also possible to train people in becoming better bridges.
In the same way that many organizations take a lot of trouble to build emotional intelligence in their managers, there is really no reason why the same thing can’t be done to develop better ‘bridging intelligence”
Thanks to John Chen for allowing me to share his research findings.