Tim and I have recently edited a network focussed issue of a journal called Innovation: Management, Policy and Practice. The really pleasing outcome from the submssions was the wide variety of applications that network analysis was having in the study of innovation management. We received papers from Asia, Europe and Australia and the overall standard of the submissions was very good.
My favourite paper in the special issue was written by Sandra Ohly (Goethe University, Frankfurt), Robert Kase and Miha Skerlavaj (both University of Ljubijana, Slovenia). It’s an important piece of work because they start from the premise that innovation is a process with different stages rather than being a singular event. We’ve written about the significance of looking at innovation as a value chain and the Ohly et al paper is entirely consistent with this. Different parts of the innovation process must be managed differently but your ability to succeed is only as good as the weekest link in the process.
Using a network sample of a Slovenian software company with 43 people in two locations, the study looked at differences between idea generation and idea validation networks. Idea validation refers to the early stage of implementation where ideas are circulated for feedback and support. Following statstical analysis of the network, the authors came up with some results that were unexpected from their initial predictions.
Their initial prediciton of reciprocity (two-way interaction) in network relations for idea generation was not supported. It seems that in this network, if I share an idea then it isn’t necessary that you have shared an idea with me previously. This might seem strange because idea sharing usually requires an environment of trust. It’s unlikely that someone will share an idea if they think that the other person will ridicule or steal it. It’s logical that I will share an idea with someone who has previously given me their own, but this just wasn’t happening in this network. What the analysis showed was that in the idea generation network there was a high level of network density caused by ‘triangle’ substructures. In other words, in the idea generation network, friends of my friends will also be your friends. In this type of network, trust develops because of the negative kickback that a mutual friend gives if somebody abuses that trust.
The same dense networks were not apparent in the idea validation network, indicating that trust was not such a valuable resource in this stage. Here, getting access to supervisors with resources was most important and there was a tendency for emplyees to go to their own leader for support. In idea validation, formal reporting relationships dominate compared to the informal networks that are important for idea generation.
The take-home message from the study is that not only do we need to understand which phases of the innovation process are we good and bad at, but also we need to foster networks that will support these different phases. The evidence from this study is that encouraging more informal networks will not assist with building the capability to execute ideas.