What Motivates Knowledge Brokers?

I wrote a post last week about the importance of connecting different groups as a precursor for innovation and the special role that some people have as bridges between disparate knowledge communities where ‘structural holes’ exist within the network between the communities. After writing this post I went looking for more research on the psychological characteristics of these “knowledge brokers” who bridge these groups and are a major factor in both generating new ideas and also getting ideas to spread.

What I found was an excellent review article by Garry Robbins from the network group at the University of Melbourne. The leaders of this research group, Garry Robbins and Pip Pattison are both outstanding research academics and genuinely nice people who are generous with their expertise and experience in network analysis. They run a network analysis course each year in July, which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to learn about network theory and analysis.

While Garry says that we need to do a lot more to understand the connections between networks and the personalities of people within networks, he says that we already have good evidence for the traits and motivations of knowledge brokers.

Last week I wrote about ‘self-monitoring’ or the ability to be socially adaptable as a characteristic of knowledge brokers. There are several studies that support this, but knowledge broking isn’t an easy job. While knowledge brokers are entrepreneurs in the sense that they can see valuable opportunities because of their position on the bridge, occupying the bridge can also be very stressful.

Knowledge brokers aren’t insiders, they are on the edge of two or more communities. It’s a precarious position to be in and knowledge brokers need to work hard to stay involved with multiple groups with different cultures and expertise. If you have ever asked yourself why everyone isn’t a knowledge broker, then this is probably the answer. It’s both intellectually demanding and stressful.

Knowledge broking can have significant personal payoffs but also high rates of stress and failure. It’s a high-risk/high-return personal strategy. If we think about bridging this way then just being multidisciplinary and socially adaptable isn’t enough to be a broker, other psychological traits must be involved too. For those of you who believe that some people are natural brokers, there is definitely evidence to support the idea that fundamental psychological traits can support the role of a broker, as Garry explains:

Burt found that respondents with networks rich in structural holes were inclined to be independent outsiders in search of change and authority; whereas those with few structural holes tended to seek conformity, obedience, security and stability.

In other words, knowledge brokers aren’t just social chameleons, they can also be disruptive change agents and a real pain for those interested in keeping everything just as it is. They are risk-takers and iconoclasts – two very important characteristics for entrepreneurs in general. However, Garry elaborates on these characteristics by referring to some of his own research:

….people who saw themselves as vulnerable to external forces tended to inhabit closed
networks of weak connections; whereas people who sought to keep strong tie
partners apart, and so to bridge structural holes, tended to be individualists, to
believe that they controlled events, and to have higher levels of neuroticism. Finally,
people with strong network closure and “weak” structural holes tended to categorize
themselves and others in terms of group memberships, akin to the social identity
effects discussed above; and they were more extroverted and less individualistic.

So knowledge brokers tend to highly individualistic with strong self-belief. Exactly the kind of person that could be brought into the manager’s office and given counseling about not being a team player. In the psychological sense, neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotional states such as anxiety and depression. Not exactly what you would call an ideal work colleague. On the other hand, the team player is unlikely to make a good knowledge broker and will instead create lots of links to close colleagues.

So here’s the paradox. Brokers are essential for innovation but harder to manage and work with. We don’t need everyone in the organization to be a broker but we do need some of these idiosyncratic people to make the networks form across holes and create new opportunities for recombining knowledge.

But if these people are individualistic and need change, then how do we align their goals with the organization. I think this is a really important question for sustaining innovation and it’s come up in discussions with several managers who we are doing research projects with. What do you think?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

10 thoughts on “What Motivates Knowledge Brokers?

  1. Great post John, I think you’re spot on. Maybe political parties would make a good case study in terms of how to deal with this. This field seems to have built-in incentives that reward brokers and attract (or produce) people with high levels of neuroticism.

  2. Thanks Sam. We wouldn’t know any confident but neurotic knowledge brokers would we? :) I am somewhat reluctant to do those tests because I think I might rank highly on all three dimensions.

  3. Thanks for this very interesting post, John. Finally, I made it to comment. I think it raises a very important issue on innovation with enormous impact potential.

    One reason, innovation is so fascinating to me, is, that it can be broken down to different levels of consideration. As research indicates, incremental and radical innovation requires different process approaches and organizational setups (ambidexterity) – Tim and I already had an interesting exchange on that.

    You start considering the individual people level now in your previous posts and it seems to me that there is the following relation:
    Personality -> intrinsic drive / motivation -> appropriate task / function in innovation networks

    In the following some paragraphs from your and other posts I found very insightful in this context:

    “Brokers are essential for innovation but harder to manage and work with. We don’t need everyone in the organization to be a broker but we do need some of these idiosyncratic people to make the networks form across holes and create new opportunities for recombining knowledge.”

    “We can’t assume that the extroverted people who get the most profile are necessarily the best organizational bridges.”

    “Idea quality is unrelated to idea volume! …But in good news for us introverts, the people talking the most aren’t necessarily the ones coming up with the best contributions.” (http://timkastelle.org/blog/2010/01/using-jams-to-select-ideas/)

    “What creates the vibrancy and serendipity in these structures is the matrix of ever-changing human connection and conversation. However, in a large organization, over time, the conversational patterns tend to become etched in stone. There are fixed reporting lines, committee groups, task forces, and so forth. Companies tend to consign innovation to a small cadre of ‘experts’ in specialized departments, and they end up having the same people talking to the same people, year after year, so they lose that conversational richness.” (http://www.business-strategy-innovation.com/2010/04/innovation-perspectives-building-deep.html)

    Based on this I would like to raise the following questions that seem self-evident to me. They could also serve as a starter for a continuative discussion:

    1) Are more introvert people underestimated for innovation tasks – particularly with regard to ideation as well as more radical innovation activities, requiring bridging silos across organizations?
    2) Can’t we improve alignment between individual behaviour / attitude and organization by assigning appropriate tasks (change vs. sustain) within the innovation process?

    Looking forward to your response.


  4. Hi Ralph:

    thanks for taking the time to put this together. It is an excellent synthesis of several posts and I think that the questions that you arrive at are pertinent for innovation managers and business researchers alike.
    A few things came into my head as I was reading your comment.
    One is that if we start thinking about innovation as a process then we need different types of personalities to make it work. Abstract thinkers, kinisthetic learners, optimists, pesimists extroverts and introverts all have roles to play in different parts of the process. I have a colleague who is an executive coach and he makes the same point about the strategy process using the Myers-Briggs categories of personality.
    Another thought is that I think many people’s talents are overlooked until they find the right role or calling. Winston Churchill was a military and political failure until Britain was threatened with invasion. Steve Jobs was just a weird kid until he found Wozniak and similar characters in the home-brew club. Somewhere at home I have a report card from high school that suggests I should consider leaving school and take up a trade aprrenticeship :) There are lots of stories like this and I am sure other blog readers could fill in the list. Perhaps one of the challenges of innovation is to find those on the edge of communities and organizations who are looking for something to switch them on? It’s an intriguing idea!
    The second question is a real fire-starter. Innovation is multidisciplinary but is anyone thinking about Human Resource Management and the recruitment and training of people for managing the innovation process. As far as I know, technical skills dominate selection but personality and soft skills are going to be what makes it work.
    Brilliant stuff Ralph! Thank you.

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