How Structural Holes Can Help Managers Improve Collaborative Innovation
Tapping the innovative power of structural holes depends on remembering two things. First and foremost is that people naturally group with those similar to themselves, and consequently relatively few people are natural brokers. Most people need nudging and encouragement before they realize the benefits of discussing ideas outside their regular work group. Managers can play a crucial role in providing this nudging and encouragement, by advocating such discussions and stimulating cross-group interactions.
Balancing the first point, managers should also remember the second: It’s entirely possible to promote too much cross-fertilizing between groups. The goal is to encourage employees to be brokers, not to encourage different groups to stay in constant contact. Creating too many tight-knit links between different groups wastes time and smothers creativity under a blanket of homogeneity.
As managers retire the myth of the “creative person,” it is critical that they not to replace it with the cult of “the broker.” As Burt and others have found in additional studies, even the most introverted can reliably act as brokers, when they see it as a necessary part of their jobs. The lesson is clear: Companies that want to compete today as innovators must make brokering a job requirement.
One of the great ironies of Burt’s research on structural holes is that there are hundreds of managers within Raytheon who don’t know about it – even managers specifically working to improve collaborative innovation at Raytheon. How can this be? The sad truth is that Burt’s work is “too academic” to attract notice from these managers. Here is a striking example of the yawning culture gap that separates the academic study of social networks from business practice in this area.
Widening the gap even further is research like "The Nonsense of Knowledge Management" by T.D. Wilson. This paper was recently recommended to a global forum of social scientists by a well-known member of that community. The title alone makes pretty clear that
Returning to the lessons learned from Burt’s structural holes, it is easy to conclude one thing at least: There is no point in even trying to close this academic-business culture gap. But there is another lesson even more powerful. Consider the words of Drs. Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, co-creators of the Balanced Scorecard, the world’s benchmark of measuring and managing business performance:
“When it comes to specific measures concerning employee skills, strategic information availability, and organizational alignment, companies have devoted virtually no effort for measuring either the outcomes or the drivers of these capabilities. This gap is disappointing since one of the most important goals for adopting the scorecard measurement and management framework is to promote the growth of individual and organizational capabilities.”
In the social network research of Ron Burt and many of his colleagues, solid quantifiable techniques are finally being developed for these missing measurements. For those brokers able to bring these results into the business of collaborative innovation, the rewards will be substantial.