Michael Erard of the New York Times wrote a great story in May 2004, “Where to Get a Good Idea: Steal It Outside Your Group.”
The article discusses the work of Ron Burt, noted sociologist at the University of Chicago. Burt has observed that innovation is almost never a “heroic act of creativity.” Instead, innovation is an “import-export game” brokered by people who connect otherwise distinct groups. A mundane idea in one setting can become groundbreaking somewhere else, if just one person recognizes and exploits the “import-export” opportunity. Burt coined the term “structural hole” to describe the gaps between groups where this kind of innovation can occur. Click here for Burt’s full treatment (50-page pdf) of this idea.
Erard writes about Burt’s engagement with Raytheon:
Mr. Burt, whose latest findings will appear in the American Journal of Sociology this fall, studied managers in the supply chain of Raytheon, the large electronics company and military contractor based in Waltham, Mass., where he worked until last year. Mr. Burt asked managers to write down their best ideas about how to improve business operations and then had two executives at the company rate their quality. It turned out that the highest-ranked ideas came from managers who had contacts outside their immediate work group. The reason, Mr. Burt said, is that their contacts span what he calls "structural holes," the gaps between discrete groups of people.
For those of you who want the details, Burt’s paper offers solid statistical evidence to back up this claim, as well as many others. (Want better performance reviews, faster promotions, or a higher salary? Then go start bridging structural holes.)
Structural Holes in Our Own Backyard
To me, the most striking aspect of Burt’s work at Raytheon is that Raytheon did not mention it at last week’s knowledge management seminar.
Burt’s results clearly pertained to the topic at hand. The presenters described their overall mission as improving “the systematic processes that create, capture, share, and reuse knowledge [at Raytheon].” Burt’s results, obtained by studying the Raytheon organization, reveal very strong ties between specific social patterns (namely, bridging structural holes) and exactly these goals.
Considering the hours devoted to explaining Raytheon’s IT efforts, it puzzles me that the dramatic and statistically validated findings of Burt didn’t get a mention. I'm also struck that no one brought it up in the Q&A that followed. Perhaps many in the audience, like myself, didn't know about Burt's results at that time, even though they were written up in the NY Times one month before. Could the same be true of the knowledge management staff at Raytheon?
My guess is that Raytheon's employees do know about Burt's study of their own management team, but that our KM community at large does not typically pay attention to these sociologists. Perhaps Burt is too academic? But we don't need to be PhD sociologists to find ways to apply findings like Burt's. It's good business. See Bill Ives and Adriaan Jooste's comments from a recent KM Cluster for another take on managing people and innovation in the knowledge economy.
In recent months I have grown increasingly involved with a couple sociological organizations that relate closely in my mind to knowledge management (in particular The Mass Bay OD Learning Group and the International Network for Social Network Analysis). I expected to discover a thriving cross-over between these groups and our local KM groups. So far I have found few social connections between them, even at meetings (like Raytheon's) where the topical connections are obvious.
My instinct is to lament this situation. Can't we all get along? But as Ron Burt points out so well, what I really see is not a problem, but an opportunity.