Trading Off Speed and Novelty in Innovation Networks

I’ve written a couple of posts recently on the importance of network diversity for innovation and how dense networks can actually inhibit innovation. Since the 1970s, the dominant view in network analysis of innovation is that novelty comes from sparely connected network where ‘structural holes’ exist to preserve diversity. Weak links between knowledge clusters are the best way to create new connection and preserve the diversity.

Last week, Ralph-Christian Ohr (who should have the title of Innovation Leadership Blog librarian) pointed me to a really fascinating study that was published last year in the American Journal of Sociology that throws up a new set of questions about the relationship between network structure and innovation performance. For a start, the American Journal of Sociology is a really tough peer-reviewed journal to get your work into, so this work is top-draw methodology that addresses a significant question. It’s worth mentioning that the famous small world networks in the Broadway musical business discovery was published in the same journal.

This new research into network ties within a business has a really elegant design. The authors looked at email networks within an executive recruitment firm with 14 offices across the United States. This has two big advantages in that they were able to look at the content of the emails and also relate the network position and type of network to project success. This addresses two significant challenges in network research in relating networks to performance and also looking at what is actually going on in the network.

Consistent with other notes on networks in this blog, the authors start by arguing that you can have networks with low bandwidth connections (weak ties) and network diversity (low density and low network closure) or you can get networks with high bandwidth (strong ties) and high cohesion with everyone talking to everyone else. The conventional position is to argue that novel ideas can’t circulate in dense networks with strong ties. What they actually found was that under certain conditions novelty flourished in these strongly connected, dense networks.

So what were those conditions? Well, these actually make perfect sense to me….

When there is a high rate of change in the information environment, strong ties and many connections do better and result in better business performance. Here the problem isn’t novelty because that is being generated by the business environment (think of a rapidly moving IT-related industry). In these conditions, the challenge is knowing who knows what because this is changing all the time. Strong tie networks here are a bit like a hotline to get the latest information from others. They are fast and efficient.

Hotline

Network bandwidth (tie strength) also trumps network diversity when the task is complex and information-rich. Again, diversity and novely is not the problem in this case (think of a complex project like building the Boeing Dreamliner). The authors call this a ‘high-dimensional’ information environment. In this case, innovation will be supported by bringing people together rather than having brokers to keep groups apart. Brokers don’t work well because they just get overloaded and become bottlenecks.

Something that immediately occurred to me after reading this article was that in rapdidly moving and complex innovation environments (radical innovation), organizations must invest in building social capital between employees at the frontline of the innovation process. Here, taking time out from the desk to talk and make connections is core to business success.

On the other hand, a business based on continuous improvement in a mature industry can benefit from fostering brokers to bridge different communities.

This goes back to another long term theme on this blog. Networks aren’t an end in themselves, they are part of your strategy execution. First be clear on the strategy then create the networks that you need to deliver the strategy.

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

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3 thoughts on “Trading Off Speed and Novelty in Innovation Networks

  1. First of all, thank you for the honorable title, John :-) I’m glad to be able to contribute some valuable stuff to your excellent and instructive blog.

    And thank you for following my request and picking this research up in another post. I think you make some very instructive points here.

    It helped me to understand the following:
    In general, diversity tends to be advantageous for problem solving and innovation – btw: not sure you have already noticed my latest post on “Innovation and Diversity”. I’ve referenced one of your posts here:
    http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2012/04/18/innovation-and-diversity/
    As the authors emphasize, the objective is to get the “most novel (or diverse) information per unit time” out of a network. This favors strong ties (bandwidth) over weak ties (network diversity) when it comes to following cases you have pointed out:
    – the environmental pace of change is very high, i.e. the change itself induces novelty, being quickly tapped through strong ties (bandwidth).
    – the knowledge space shared by the network cluster (strong ties) is very large (broad and deep).
    In both cases more novelty and diversity per time to juggle with is most likely to be obtained from strong ties.

    You also make very good points in terms of the implications with regard to strategy and its relation to networks.

    Overall, I think it’s a very important point for information uptake in networks to take the time factor into consideration . Depending on the pace of change and the complexity of the information environment, suggested (innovation) strategies and networks may differ significantly for particular businesses.

    One interpretation that came to my mind immediately, was: in face of ever-shrinking life cycles, strong ties become more important to get problems and innovation solved in time.

    What do you think?

    Again, thanks for valuable insights!

    – Ralph

    • Hi Ralph

      that’s a really nice post. Thanks for the link!
      I’ve been thinking about the implications of a rapidly changing information environment and I think you are right. Strong ties may be more important when we have short life-cycles and complex products. I’m really keen to test how this tie stength relationship plays out in the environment of megaprojects where the information environment is very mulitdimensionsal.

      Best regards

      John