The newest issue of the Gallup Management Journal includes an article that explores some implications of social network theory to the workplace. One implication the article discusses is the optimal makeup of teams, particularly those tasked with creativity and innovation. Rather than a collection of well-acquainted colleagues with similar expertise, optimal creativity emerges from a mixed group:
Creative teams made up of both incumbents who knew each other and newcomers who didn’t, however, were more likely to produce hit shows. Uzzi says that’s because teams with too many overlaps in their social networks are less creative — the team members all know the same stuff. Teams that aren’t networked at all, however, aren’t good at sharing what they do know. The most successful teams were those in which everyone knew one or two others but not everyone — and not no one.
Moreover, innovation and creativity are more likely to blossom when people are exposed to various ideas and knowledge that are outside of their narrow expertise. This is more likely to happen in a network with a higher percentage of weaker ties, versus overlapping redundancy:
“Creativity depends upon a person’s ability to take ideas and information that may be well understood in one area and bring it into a new area where it’s suddenly received as invention,” Uzzi says. Therein lies the productivity potential of social networks — they take whatever useful material is circulating and put it together in new ways. “Much of creativity is just new combinations put together from different pieces of information and material,” Uzzi says. “That’s how networks can really amplify creativity.”
For that reason, Uzzi suggests that organizations subvert the “proximity principle,” or people’s tendency to create networks from those around them. “The problem with the proximity principle is it tends to create homogeneous networks that lack diversity,” Uzzi says. “To undo the proximity principle . . . locate people from different specialties in the same area rather than keeping all specialists located near each other.”
Bottom line: businesses should think about how to optimally organize their workers for innovation. Critical to this is encouraging what I would term “social bumping“–the process of being exposed to new and diverse ideas on a frequent basis. If work environments are organized in such a way where workers only interact with people they share strong ties with they are less likely to be exposed to new and diverse ideas (since those we share strong ties with typically have access to the same knowledge and interests as we do). The key is to leverage–and increase access to–the weak ties of workers, since these ties are the pipelines of new and diverse knowledge. As mentioned in an earlier post, this can include helping people build diverse social networks, promoting the co-mingling of various subject-matter experts (e.g. internal rotations, inter-firm collaborations), leveraging social network technologies that encourage broad reading and sharing of knowledge (particularly the knowledge that flows from weak ties), and encouraging people to share their ideas and perspectives when they might otherwise feel as though it wasn’t their place to speak up.