The way social media strengthen innovation

By Ed Bernstein, IRI President, and Greg Holden, IRI Business Writer

Social media increase our access to information, they generate and advertise new trends, and they help us keep in touch with people we know only from that association meeting three years ago. Organizations, though, are attempting to discover how social media might enhance their success by reconnecting with and utilizing “dormant” or “lapsed” connections. So far, research on this topic remains unclear. What value can old networks bring to the organization? Social media provides us with a wide spectrum of new ideas and a way to stay in touch, but is there also a point where our number of contacts grows so large that staying connected over a long period of time becomes a challenge?

For example, in his 2000 book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell argued that the most effective organizational unit contains less than 150 individuals. The “Rule of 150,” as he called it, states that once a unit exceeds this number, the individuals in the group begin to lose focus as relationships become strained. His argument was that we reach a tipping point in organizational effectiveness beyond a certain number of relationships because we can only mentally process so many intimate connections (i.e. “strong ties”). But is there a secondary tier of connections (i.e. “weak ties”) which contribute indirectly and which may be brought in without disrupting our “Rule of 150” organizational cohesion?

A new IRI Research-on-Research (ROR) working group has set out to explore practices which help repair and better utilize such “weak ties.” This notion of bringing in “weak ties” is not a new idea; open innovation practices utilize similar networks. But this group’s question addresses such networks differently by asking how organizations construct social networks through its employees to tap into reserves of non-redundant knowledge.

The new ROR working group notes that recent studies point to a value gained by linking up with “dormant ties” or “trusted weak ties,” individuals like family members, ex-colleagues, and old college or high school friends that yield only mild and infrequent direct interactions. The group’s question about “weak ties” came from an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review titled “The Power of Reconnection: How Dormant Ties Can Surprise You,” authored by Professors Daniel Levin, Jorge Walter and J. Keith Murnighan. The article’s authors argue that dormant ties may be more valuable than current ties because of their ability to introduce non-redundant information that can spark new ideas faster than the knowledge which comes from our daily grind. The infusion of new data and different perspectives act as a catalyst in our minds. It is then thought that through such informal networks ideas are better formulated. However, there typically is no system in place to measure such input, making the ROI of social networking and social media implementation difficult for managers to gauge. Furthermore, the management practices which help reestablish such connections effectively are not clearly defined.

The ROR working group, “Weak Ties and Innovation,” co-chaired by Natalie Schoch of the Kellogg Company and Leonard Huskey of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, argue that studying how management structures which encourage reconnecting with lapsed social networks can contribute to innovativeness is important for those considering building a social networking tool in-house. It also presents an interesting approach to open innovation practices which could advance the study of idea generation and front end innovation knowledge pools.

All IRI member organizations are welcome to participate in any ROR working group to help advance the understanding of these cutting-edge management techniques and technologies. Ask yourself, has your organization attempted to evaluate whether “weak ties” play a role in your innovative processes? How would you evaluate the input of such connections? How do you reconnect with dormant ties? What practices help your researchers extract non-redundant ideas from their dormant networks? Come participate in our ROR working groups and help us find answers to these questions.

One thought on “The way social media strengthen innovation

  1. Bill Miller April 6, 2013 / 12:09 PM

    Social networking is a part of the bi-directional Knowledge Channel (KC) in a market that supplements the normal sales and distribution channel. The KC was first described in the 1998 book, Fourth Generation (4G) R&D. The point is that 4G dominant designs restructure products/services, business models and industry/market channels. So, social networking is a form of restructuring that comes with radical innovation. The KC operates upstream in R&D/marketing and downstream with customers that are using a product/service. Examples of how the KC has been applied are GE’s hybrid business model that provides smart diagnostic and maintenance services in conjunction with their products. GE’s “industrial Internet” and IBM’s “smart planet” are larger examples of the impact of the KC. Upstream the KC radically changes marketing by revealing unmet latent needs. The KC is frequently augmented with analytics that are networked and can also be embedded as they with GE. With analytics, the KC amplifies “weak signals” such as unmet latent needs. The KC is one of the 12 core principles of fourth generation (4G) innovation, a methodology that was first described in a 1990 IRI Workshop, published in a 1995 RTM paper, the 1998 book and further described in RTM papers in the early 2000’s.

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