One of our long term research projects is the problem of innovating in large complicated businesses such as engineering and mining companies. We have been using social network analysis to understand innovation because one of the biggest innovation challenges involves finding good ideas and existing expertise to do something in a better way or to come up with a better design.
Like other research projects, we have found some things that we didn’t expect to influence the innovation process and one of these is the concept of ‘search’. In a perfect world, I will search for information very broadly until I find the right person who can help me. In real organizations, people are pressed for time and go looking for knowledge in familiar places. In several interviews, we have asked engineers why they went to a particular person for advice. Sometimes the answer is because they knew they were dealing with the expert in the area, but other times the answer is “I don’t know why I went there”. It’s a bit like being in a maze. Under time pressure we go to what we can see rather than thinking more strategically about what the maze looks like.
I’ve interviewed one manager who tries to address this problem by coaching his staff in how to search for ideas and expertise. As someone who works across different parts of the business he has developed rules of thumb about who to approach and how to approach them. As he says, he has a very good strike rate and he shares these techniques with others. This type of ‘network intelligence’ is very valuable.
Another obstruction to effective search is ‘social risk’. In our surveys and interviews this is a major factor that stops the building of effective networks. Think of it this way – when I ask you a question, I’m also telling you what I don’t know. To reach out and search for knowledge is an act of trust. In some organizations where there isn’t a culture of support, asking a question is professionally risky. I might approach people that I like and trust but this puts us back into the limited search problem, with lost opportunities for new ideas and connections.
One thing that has become apparent with one of our research partners is the importance of taking time to build relationships across the business. This involves spending a day or two off site, which is a major investment for the business. The payoff is that people get to meet each other and understand what “makes them tick”. One interviewee mentioned that empathy was important because it made him more likely to respond to a request if he knew the person and not just the engineer. These relationships just don’t seem to get built with teleconferences or the intranet.
It seems that personal contact can build trust and empathy in a way that electronic communication can’t. If the personal connections aren’t made, then the electronic networks just don’t seem to work very well.
John Steen is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.