If you have been reading this blog for a while you will know that a lot of the research work that Tim and I do looks at the link between networks and innovation. When we talk about networks, we mean all sort of ways that people and businesses can connect to each other. For example, we have studied networks of project engineers, a virtual network within a multinational corporation, networks of entrepreneurs in Taiwan, and networks of academics – just to mention a few. Tim’s doctoral thesis was on the evolution of the world trade network and that had some important implications for free trade agreements. We think that networks are a really cool thing to study!
When we do this research we try to link network structures to outcomes. In the innovation context this means that we want to know what network structures are associated with better innovation performance. This morning Tim sent me a link to an article in Slate Magazine that summarizes a famous research study of networks and creativity in the Broadway musical industry. The main finding is that a particular class of network stucture called a ‘small world’ is correlated with the appearance of blockbuster musicals. When this structure appears in the networks of scriptwriters, choreograhpers and librettists, then it is more likely that a highly successful musical will be produced.
Small-world networks have a particular signature of clusters and sparse links between the clusters. They are called small worlds because the handful of links between the clusters create shortcuts between anyone in the network. The general idea is that this makes it easier for new ideas to flow within the network.
One obvious question to ask is why doesn’t a network with more links between the clusters work even better? In the Broadway study they found that improving the connectedness of the network with more shortcuts between clusters resulted in less musical success rather than more, so what is going on here?
My explanation comes from another classic network study that is over forty years old. In a famous paper called “The Strength of Weak Ties” Mark Granovetter highlighted the importance of weak network links. This was demonstrated in his study of how people find a job. It wasn’t the strong connections that were the source of information about a new job, it was actually the weak connections to people you don’t know very well that were the most common source of an opportunity.
When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Tight networks circulate existing information. It is unlikely that you will get anything new out of your closest friends. You know them and what they know, and vice versa. It’s the bridges into unfamilliar networks that are the better sources of opportunities and ideas. In terms of the broadway musical study, this means that better connected networks don’t necessarily result in more innovative musicals.
This also has a very practical implication for our own networks. Are you in a densely connected cluster? How can you get out and make just a few random connections?
Note: Small-world network image is from Six Degrees by Duncan Watts.