Social Networks and Innovation

By Reanna Putnam

Sustainable Behavior Associate

Social networks can tell us a lot about how organizational structure promotes innovation. And don’t worry, this post is not about optimizing Facebook and Twitter to boost creativity. The term social network can be used to describe the relationships between any collection of two or more people, groups or organizations with common goals or interests(1).

Figure 1: Structural Holes(6)

There are different theories as to what produces innovation in social networks. One common explanation is that the presence of structural holes, defined as places of disconnection in the network, promote creativity in the individuals nearest to the structural hole(2, 3,4). Individuals who are near structural holes are more likely to have access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations because they are able to draw on information from outside of their immediate connections(2). Encouraging indirect ties that bridge structural holes is a cost effective way for organizations to access diverse knowledge and contribute to innovation without adding to project expenses(5).

Another, perhaps conflicting, way to increase innovation in a network, is through strengthening relationships among members of a design team and creating a more densely connected network. This is important because it can increase performance(7,8,9), reduce conflict among team members(10), and increase in the duration of group membership(11).
Figure 2: Core Periphery Structure (12)

So how do we bridge these two contradictory concepts? One way is through promoting a core-periphery structure. A strong project team will consist of a densely connected core of key decision makers who are loosely connected to a peripheral network form which they draw ideas and information into the network. These loose connections to the periphery network allows for the network to be larger, bringing in new and diverse ideas. Because not all members of the core are connected to the periphery, innovation producing structural holes are formed.

Integrative design teams often take on this core-periphery structure. They do so by having a densely connected decision making core who are loosely connected to a diverse periphery of building users, facilities and operation staff, design specialists and construction professionals. The core-periphery structure allow for integrative design teams to come up with innovative design solutions that produce efficient buildings and increase occupant satisfaction.

(1) Anklam, P. (2007). Net work: a practical guide to creating and sustaining networks at work and in the world. Routledge.

(2) Burt, R. S. (2004). Structural holes and good ideas1. American journal of sociology, 110(2), 349-399.

(3) Walker, G., Kogut, B., & Shan, W. (1997). Social capital, structural holes and the formation of an industry network. Organization science, 8(2), 109-125.

(4) Powell, W. W., Koput, K. W., & Smith-Doerr, L. (1996). Interorganizational collaboration and the locus of innovation: Networks of learning in biotechnology. Administrative science quarterly, 116-145.

(5) Ahuja, G. (2000). Collaboration networks, structural holes, and innovation: A longitudinal study. Administrative science quarterly, 45(3), 425-455.

(6) Farral, Kenneth. (2004) Web Graph Analysis in Perspective: Description and Evaluation in terms of Krippendorff’s Conceptual Framework for Content Analysis (version 1.0). Retrieved from: http://farrall.org/papers/webgraph_as_content.html.

(7) de Montjoye, Y. A., Stopczynski, A., Shmueli, E., Pentland, A., & Lehmann, S. (2014). The strength of the strongest ties in collaborative problem solving. Scientific reports, 4.

(8) Balkundi, P., & Harrison, D. A. (2006). Ties, leaders, and time in teams: Strong inference about network structure’s effects on team viability and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 49(1), 49-68Lazega 2002

(9) Nelson, R. E. (1989). The strength of strong ties: Social networks and intergroup conflict in organizations. Academy of Management Journal, 32(2), 377-401.

(10) McPherson, J. M., Popielarz, P. A., & Drobnic, S. (1992). Social networks and organizational dynamics. American Sociological Review, 153-170.

(11) Borgatti, S. P., & Everett, M. G. (2000). Models of core/periphery structures.Social networks, 21(4), 375-395.

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