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?