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How Innovation Really Works: The Role of Social Networks

Networks and Innovation

Too often, we neglect the social milieu within which innovation is cultivated—the concrete, ongoing, everyday interactions inventors have with their colleagues. A strong social network is what provides the raw ingredients for innovation.

From Alexander Graham Bell to Thomas Edison, right up to contemporary examples like Steve Jobs, innovation has been closely associated with rare gifted visionaries, who see the future in ways we cannot. But innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum: we forget that Bell had Thomas Watson, Edison had a lab, and Jobs had Steve Wozniak and others.

Too often, we neglect the social milieu within which innovation is cultivated—the concrete, ongoing, everyday interactions inventors have with their colleagues. This ecosystem is what provides the raw ingredients for innovation, and there is order to it: there are patterns to the interactions, and by recording them—for instance, who goes to whom for information, advice, problem solving, friendship, etc.—we can construct a map that represents the collective intelligence system of an organization.  It turns out that such maps tell us some very important things about the dynamics of innovation.


"Catalysts are the helpers who are often hidden in the shadows of star inventors."

- Bill McEvily, strategy professor at Rotman


Recent research provides us with a radical departure from the traditional heroic, ‘great man’ view, and show that innovation is truly a collective endeavour.  Rather than being the province of brilliant, savants, we are seeing that it is deeply and inextricably embedded in networks of social relationships.

If innovation is not all about lone inventors, then what other roles matter? This is where the catalyst comes in. Catalysts as the helpers who are often hidden in the shadows of star inventors—but who nonetheless perform an essential role in the innovation process.  Whereas innovators are drawing on their network of contacts to access diverse ideas, then translating that into novel solutions, catalysts are more likely to feed useful ideas to their contacts to enable others to produce creative solutions. The catalyst’s job, then, is to know their contacts well—what their areas of expertise are, what their priorities are—and to be on the lookout for knowledge that is relevant and useful to them.

Innovation is truly a collective endeavour.  While not dismissing individual intelligence and effort, the way you are connected to others also matters - and matters deeply.

Bill McEvily is a professor of strategic management at the Rotman School, and was named by Thomson Reuters among the world’s most highly-cited scientific researchers.

Read the full article in Rotman Management magazine.

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