How social networks can add value to innovation in workplaces

flow through innovation in workplaces
Ideas and information flow through social relationships. We need to be open enough to grab them. When you think of innovation as a flexible process, it is more likely to succeed than purely as an investment vehicle for returns. The above is an adapted figure. I used Artflow to sketch it. It is open for interpretation.

Social relationships whether we know it or not can get us access to information and resources. In addition, of course, influence as well. The degree and extent of our relationships with people determine how innovations surface from the dark and how rapidly they can be diffused among network members.

Social relationships within networks play a huge role particularly during the early stages of innovation process and the kind of relationships and the structure of the networks in terms of how dense they are further promotes innovation.

“The influence of social relationships on innovation stems particularly from two obvious reasons” says Olav Sorenson from the Yale school of management in his working paper on “Role of social networks in innovation’ published in NBER (National bureau of economic research).

The first one is that innovation process requires inputs, sharing of expertise and contribution from multiple people. Moreover, such information and people are distributed across the world. Rarely can we say that innovation or the outcome of innovation results from one single individual working all alone.

Secondly, there is no guarantee that new ideas will succeed. It is unpredictable and we need to accept that there is a great degree of uncertainty. It is difficult for investors and entrepreneurs to predict the outcome of their investment choices.

In such situations, they rely on their instincts as well as the trust they place another person in the social network for them to confide, discuss and take another course of action. They rarely rely on rational or logical calculations.

In effect, it is to say that the strength of social relationships can influence the success or failure of innovation. There needs to be a shift from thinking innovation as purely an investment vehicle for returns to a more process oriented approach, which can be potentially, be shaped, and molded as we move along a more flexible process.

Measuring the quality and pattern of relationships within a social network has always been a challenge. Understanding the depth of relationships that people have within social networks has been difficult as it relies on the responses of the network members themselves. Capturing such responses from network members is expensive, more over the ‘give and take’ in a relationship is captured at a snapshot in time, and this may not be accurate.

Owing to this fact, research and practice of analyzing social networks for innovation has gone from the quality of relationships vis-à-vis the acquaintances of people, the information exchanges to the number and type of connections people have.

More so, this is increasingly seen on measures based on the number of transactions done or contracts signed between the two collaborating parties. This is quite evident in the co-authorship and co-patents that people produce when they work together.

Even the measures on the quality of relationships are highly subjective. An enthusiastic and a creative person may reach out more and connect with others.

The geographical distances in a network also have an effect. People feel more comfortable in talking to a person within the same city where they live than to a person who is half way across the world. Therefore, the measures on the subjective relationships within a network may not be consistent and do not yield value.

Olav Sorenson further elaborates in his working paper that there are three main channels through which social networks can influence innovation.  Social networks that influence innovation in workplaces can be measured through what flows within the relationship. In this aspect, it is the information that flows through the social relationships.

Similarly, there is also the degree of influence that people have in the network and the social capital that bonds people together to achieve great tasks. All these can influence innovation and its diffusion. Lastly, there is also the access to resources where one party may not have access to resources and the other party can fill that gap. Let us look into these three channels of social network influence on innovation in workplaces.

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Flow of knowledge and information

Much of the information we have access to have the tendency to remain private within a tight group of few people. This can also be tacit knowledge in the minds of seniors and people who have spent years working and have gained invaluable critical knowledge. Social relationships help in gaining access to private information – only a few know.

One method of eliciting such knowledge, that organizations follow is to form a small team of  junior or less experienced people with senior people on the job making them work together on a project.

Another important factor that many researchers agree is that a new insight is born when you combine other peoples’ ideas and hunches with your own acquired knowledge and expertise. For successive iteration of hunches and ideas, you need close and trusted relationships and social networks can help here.

Social relationships through social networks in workplaces can facilitate such recombination to happen.

Flow of Influence

It is a known fact that people having more number of connections in their network and who are early adopters of a new technology or innovation can easily spread it to the rest of the network members. They are more or less something like micro-influencers.

Secondly, there is social capital, which is built over a period. Social capital is the invisible bond that binds employees to work together as teams. The management does not force such social relationships. They enjoy each other’s company and love accomplishing tasks and ideating together.  In fact, when the bond is strong, the employees have more confidence in trusting other person’s comments and suggestions. They also seem to follow a path laid down by others with greater trust and they begin to perceive the information exchange as more relevant.

Access to resources

Being connected to friends who have access to scarce resources has proved invaluable to innovators and entrepreneurs. This may or may not be applicable to a corporate workplace environment. Resources in this context, is specifically towards assets, materials, and not information. This is more suited for entrepreneurs having access to funders, who can fund their projects.



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Ramkumar Yaragarla

I am 43 years old. Founder, Loving dad and Husband. Worked as an IT Business analyst and program manager in several Fortune 100 companies.Alumnus at the University of Warwick, UK. I love the WWW and write on Social aspects of information, Social collaboration, Digital Sociology, Digital Humanities and Work life balance. I enjoy playing on the beach with my 9 year old daughter. I am open to your suggestions and comments.
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