Building Innovation Networks

According to David Strom, a web/tech expert…

“Burger King ran a promotion not too long ago where they asked people to defriend 10 Facebook friends in order to get a coupon for a free burger. They were swamped with thousands of requests, thereby establishing the value of a friend at somewhere around a quarter. That is pretty depressing. I always thought a friend was worth at least a couple of bucks, if not more.”

This got me thinking. How do we value friends? And are all friends valued the same way? I have nearly 400 Facebook friends. I try to only befriend people I really know. But admittedly, some are friends of friends and I don’t know them at all. In reality, there are only a handful of people that truly interest me.

My experience mimics that suggested in this fascinating article on how the virtual Facebook world mimics the physical world. Although we may have hundreds of friends on Facebook, there are indeed only a handful that we maintain intimate relationships with.

Dr Robin Dunbar once suggested that humans can only have a stable network of about 150 people, also known as “the Dunbar number.”

The article shares some interesting statistics…

  • The average person has 120 Facebook friends. This is interestingly quite close to the Dunbar number.
  • Men generally respond to postings of only 7 of those friends by leaving comments on photos, status messages or “the wall.” Woman respond to 10 friends.
  • With two-way communication, men only chat/email with 4 people, while women communicate with 6.
  • Among those Facebook users with 500 friends, these numbers are only slightly higher (but not proportionally higher). Men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26. Men communicate with ten, women with 16.

I find this quite interesting. And it has interesting implications for building innovation networks and communities.

When working with an organization, I often put in place innovation “Centers of Excellence” and “Communities of Practice.” We find these are very helpful in spreading the innovation gospel into smaller, more manageable sized groups. The research above demonstrates to me why it works so well.

While at Accenture (then Andersen Consulting), we used a similar model to build the skills of the consultants. My area was called “Process Excellence” and involved the building of innovation skills.

We created a Process Excellence Center of Excellence with 100 people. These uber-experts were dedicated 100% to our team. We had responsibility for their professional development and the P&L of the group. We even split these into smaller groups based on geography and specific competencies. This created even smaller, more cohesive groups.

We then developed a “Community of Practice Leadership Group.” This group was comprised of 30 people. These individuals were dedicated to other parts of the business (mainly industry programs). We were only responsible for giving them to tools necessary to lead their communities. Leaders were selected based on their existing Process Excellence skills and their geography.

Each leader had about 50 people on average, giving us about 1,500 people in the Process Excellence Community of Practice.

At the lowest level, we had 20,000 consultants that were recipients of the training that was developed by the Center of Excellence and delivered by 150 experts hand-selected from the Community of Practice. These sessions were delivered in small group settings with a dedicated point of contact available for post-training follow-up and mentoring.

Using this approach, we developed a powerful 20,000 person practice in only a matter of months. Although this group accounted for almost 40% of the consultants in the company, it was one of the most active and sought after communities.

Instead of trying to create huge, faceless groups, look for opportunities to build smaller, more active communities. Find ways to create intimate relationships between employees, customers, and vendors.

Look at your networks. Is there an abundance of activity and dialogue? If not, you may want to look at the sizes of your teams. Yes, size does matter.

If you have not yet read my article published in the European Business Forum, be sure to read it now. It gives more insights into this “community” concept.


Stephen Shapiro is the author of three books, a popular innovation speaker, and is the Chief Innovation Evangelist for Innocentive, the leader in Open Innovation.

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