Companies spend millions recruiting top talent and pushing innovation. Yet even when talent pools in large organizations overflow, innovation too often just trickles out.
Untangling knots in company networks could be the key, suggests Rob Cross, a management professor at the University of Virginia. “Many companies have a lot of talent in house, but they are not getting much out of it from a collaborative standpoint,” Cross noted during a session at “The Changing Face of Innovation: Next Challenges for Practice,” a recent conference held by Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological Innovation.
For his research, Cross analyzes relationships and informal networks in organizations, and has found that mapping out communication patterns can reveal blockages that stifle innovation. People become dots; lines between them show “most trusted” connections. Does the resulting design look like complex spider web, with every dot connecting to several others? Or a snowflake, with a few densely connected dots in the center and the rest strung out in isolated branches? Do clusters clump together by region, bridge gaps of expertise or dangle tenuously from thread-like links?
Identifying “trusted ties” is just one way Cross maps out company connections. He also shows the impact of “energizers,” people who elevate the energy of those around them, as well as company downers, the “people who will just suck the life out of a room.” And he’s always looking for what he calls “brokers,” the people who are able to bridge disparate groups together and see connections that others don’t. “We look at information flow, but depending on the context, we’ll look at trust or energy or other dimensions,” said Cross. “That turns out to be incredibly predictive. When an idea moves from one person to another and they actually do something about it in these networks, it’s almost always associated with some kind of trust.”
Network maps reveal unknown silos, dominance of certain groups or isolation of key expertise, Cross noted. The map of one company, for example, showed a lone dot at the end of a long branch. The company had spent thousands to recruit the employee, but did little to help him integrate with other groups. Instead of sparking innovation, he languished and soon left. “If you are trying to innovate in a certain way and you’re hiring all these key technical capabilities, are they actually influential in the network, or are they peripheral?”
Likewise, are your existing connections the most strategic for the goal at hand? Many executives who climb the ranks of an organization tend to rely on old ties even when they should be connecting to new people with different expertise. “Generally, 60% to 70% of their ‘trusted ties’ are back in the area that they came from,” Cross pointed out. “It’s a really core innovation challenge.” Often, companies will report that they have hired a slew of new experts to drive innovation in a new direction, “but you look at these network patterns, and [companies are] overly reliant on all the people who were good for yesterday’s capabilities.”