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Ana Andjelic and I have just started a discussion around how to best organize for innovation.  (BTW, if you aren’t already a reader you should really check out Ana’s blog, i [love] marketing.)  Rather than continue the conversation in the comments thread I thought it might be good to bring it over to the blog.

Ana recently wrote an interesting piece about the impact of organizational structure and systems on performance.  In it, she cited a post I wrote on the role of polymaths in innovation.  The gist of my post was that there is evidence that individuals with a broad, diverse knowledge base contribute more to innovation than highly specialized “experts”.  Ana claimed that what is likely more important than polymaths is the connections between them.  On this point I would also agree.

Weak vs. Strong Ties in a Social Network

Weak vs. Strong Ties in a Social Network

The discussion has now turned to how you structure an organization to maximize the likelihood of individuals bumping into others with different sets of knowledge. And away we go…

I wrote the other day that, for me, the big payoff of social media is that it both exposes people to perspectives and knowledge-sets that they normally would not come into contact with. This accomplishes two things: 1) it can help destabilize stale ways of thinking and 2) prevent such stasis from setting in going forward. Social media can also help bring individuals together to collectively problem solve and create. Social media can be as active or passive as one wants it to be. It can be engaged so that people “bump” into new and interesting people (case in point, Ana and I just bumped into each other via our blogs–we were not formally introduced or looking for each other or people with our respective skills, etc.), or it can be used to actively organize a diverse group of minds with the goal of solving a complex problem.

So I would say that to encourage innovative thinking we want to use social technologies to structure collaborations between diverse individuals both within and outside of organizations. For each problem, you would want to bring together differing perspectives from within the organization. There are now platforms that facilitate the crowdsourcing of internal expertise (e.g. Imaginatik), not necessarily crowds outside the organization. This would have the added advantage of preventing the kind of social network ossification (where we end up going back to the same people over and over again for insights) that Ana worries about. Additionally, we can and should add an external module to this as well. Having ready access to external experts further increases the possible diversity of opinion to draw from. This can be done by tapping into an expert network (such as Gerson Lehrman Group, the firm I work for) as well as leveraging external crowdsourcing platforms (e.g. Chaordix).

Another idea is to make social media and social technologies mandatory for all workers. You can set up internal networks and have those networks integrate with external networks to maximize the likelihood of “intellectual bumping”.

So there are some initial thoughts. What do you think?