What your social network says about your creativity

diverse-network-creativityThere has been much written, not least on this blog, about the value thought diversity brings to innovation.  The thinking is an intuitive one, in that the more diverse the ideas, experiences and insights that are brought to bear on a problem, the more likely you are to come up with a solution.

You would imagine therefore, that a diverse social network is also likely to have a positive impact on ones creativity.  That was the question posed by a recent study by academics from America, Holland, Australia and Colombia.

The benefits of a diverse social network

“Social networks can be important sources of information and insight that may spark employee creativity,” the authors say. “The cross-fertilization of ideas depends not just on access to information and insights through one’s direct network — the people one actually interacts with — but at least as much on access to the indirect network one’s direct ties connect to.”

Central to this was so called non-redundant ties.  These are people that we don’t interact with directly ourselves, but who our connections do.  They’re 2nd tier connections in other words.  It turns out that they’re the key to our creative output.

“More specifically, when networking, building two-step nonredundant ties — which means one’s two direct network ties are not connected by the same third person — is the most efficient way for obtaining nonredundant information and generating creative ideas,” the authors explain. “Thus, employees need to proactively build network ties with such people.”

The study saw several hundred employees at a Chinese pharma company analyzed across several divisions to see how they networked.  They identified employees that had developed extensive networks outside of the companies core region, with these employees crucial in the company’s plans to expand.

These individuals were examined for their creative outputs, and it emerged that they were able to develop novel new ways to promote company products.  For instance, they devised innovative strategies to cross-sell products, and found creative ways to reach hard to access sales targets.

The authors contend that their findings should drive organizations to modify how they approach employees networking activities.

“Organizations may benefit from developmental efforts helping employees build the efficiency of their direct networks, meaning the proportion of direct ties in an individual’s network that are not interconnected, and guiding employees to establish nonredundant ties, because such networks are likely to result in indirect networks of high-reach efficiency that are conducive to creativity,” they say.

Of course, the study was conducted within the confines of an organization, but there is much to suggest that similar results would emerge in other social networks too.

Creativity versus performance

As a counter point however, a study last year looked at the strength of ties between team members and the performance of that team.

When weak ties existed between colleagues, whether along goal or personal orientated lines, there was shown to be no significant impact upon the performance of their team.  That was certainly not the case with stronger ties however, with a clear link between the strength of the ties and the performance of the team.

When solving problems in a competitive environment, the study revealed, it does not matter how many people someone knows or networks with — what really matters are the strongest ties in the network. This has implications for the organization of teams of scientists, engineers, and a host of others tackling today’s most complex problems.

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