Building Innovation by Strengthening Bridges

Marco Tortoriello, Professor of Strategy - January 15th, 2009
lightbulb of innovation

Key Ideas

• It is great for people to share knowledge across organizational boundaries, but it is not always easy, nor is it always enough to generate innovation.
• Stability of cross-boundary ties is crucial for effective exchange and collaboration, and third party involvement is crucial to create such an environment.
• Network relationships cannot be deliberately engineered, but managers who encourage and support them can expect to reap benefits. 

Marco Tortoriello ©HEC Paris

Marco Tortoriello worked at HEC Paris as professor of strategy from 2006 and 2009. He holds a PhD in industrial behavior from Carnegie Mellon University (USA) and an undergraduate (...)

Historically, social network research has demonstrated that people who interact across organizational boundaries use knowledge more effectively and generate more innovation than those who remain within the confines of their unit. While this may be true, Marco Tortoriello’s research has provided a critical nuance to this idea, for it uncovers a fundamental limitation to this notion. In fact, the idea of fruitful cross-boundary exchange is based on the powerful assumption that it is easy for people with different expertise and backgrounds to interact and exchange. However, knowledge sharing is not always easy, especially when this knowledge is highly specialized and diverse. Cross-boundary interaction is certainly an effective source of new ideas, but it takes more than that to transform an idea into a concrete innovation.


THE CHALLENGES OF GENERATING INNOVATION

Managers in all types of industry are increasingly being confronted with the same type of problems as the R&D division of the high tech company studied. Knowledge does not flow effortlessly between experts with diverse backgrounds and expertise. Communication and integration are difficult and must not be taken for granted.

• Cross-organizational connections or “bridges” are a first step toward generating innovative concepts, because bringing diverse knowledge from different parts of an organization together is a rich source of new ideas. However, there is a substantial difference between coming up with a new idea and implementing it.

• The deeper you go into an area of expertise, the harder it becomes to share knowledge in ways that are accessible to others. Experts often struggle to communicate their knowledge to “non-experts” or to experts in other fields. They encounter language related obstacles and often lose time due to misunderstandings. One unit of a company may have a problem and another a solution, but the two are often unable to connect.

• Effective collaboration between people possessing different complex knowledge requires developing common language and understanding. This is the only means to create a stable foundation for fruitful exchange and subsequent use of knowledge.

• People require easy, extensive, consistent, and involved access to those who possess complementary knowledge. Exchange may need to be interrupted so that a promising idea may be tested, for instance, but it is necessary for people to be able to effectively reconnect and resume their knowledge exchange.


THIRD PARTY INVOLVEMENT

After dealing with communication issues, the major component of effective cross-boundary interaction has to do with the number of people involved and with their degree of involvement. A connection or bridge between two people from different parts of an organization may be enough to spark an idea, but it will probably take more to make something of it. Three is the minimum number of people needed to constitute a network, and triads are significantly more stable than simple pairs. To be the most productive, a two-person relationship should be embedded in a three-person structure, for the latter provides a safer, more stable environment in which the knowledge sharing relationship can bloom.

• Imagine being solicited for help by somebody from another part of your organization whom you do not know. Most people will wonder why they should devote their time and energy to a stranger. How can you be sure that the person will make good use of the knowledge you share? Now image receiving the same request from the same person, but he or she has been referred to you by a common acquaintance. This makes all the difference. Wariness, resistance, and disinterest suddenly make immediate way for trust, a desire to cooperate, and a focus on potential mutual benefits.

• A third party acts to create a system of checks and balances and eradicates one-on-one standoffs. As a result, a common language and understanding can emerge. Knowledge can be tested, exchanged, and developed in constructive ways.


BREEDING INNOVATION-CREATING TIES

Social relationships and systems like networks cannot actually be engineered; managers cannot “force people” to exchange highly specialized knowledge. They can, however, facilitate opportunities for collaboration and support effective communication.

• Ties between people generally form spontaneously based on personal interests and needs. However, managers can make a point of staffing research teams with people from different labs or units. While it is easier to forma team within a department, integrating people from other units will bring in both different knowledge and different access to further knowledge. Novelty, diversity, and multiple perspectives will all increase the chances for innovation.

• It takes time for network relationships to bear their fruit, as individuals need to learn how to benefit from each other’s knowledge. Managers can monitor cross-organizational exchange but they need to be patient and realize they should facilitate rather than frame such interaction. The study of the R&D researchers involved laboratories throughout Europe, North America, and Asia, but Tortoriello and Krackhardt did not observe any cultural differences between countries. Cross organizational or bridging connections between people are a globally promising way to boost innovation, provided a second part of the equation is also considered: third party involvement to stabilize and facilitate interaction.



Based on an interview with Marco Tortoriello, assistant professor in the strategy and business policy department, and on his article (co-authored with David Krackhardt) “Integrating Cross-Boundary Knowledge: the Role of Simmelian Ties in the Generation of Innovations”, forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal. 

FROM THE LAB TO THE WORKPLACE
FROM THE LAB TO THE WORKPLACE

The following is most decisive in fields where knowledge is highly specialized:

• Staff project teams with qualified people from different organizational units.
• Encourage people to connect acquaintances who might share interests.
• Help develop common language and terminology to overcome communication barriers.
• Be aware that a novel idea is a starting point, but it takes time and resources to achieve innovation. 

RESEARCH METHOD
RESEARCH METHOD

In 2005 and 2006, Marco Tortoriello and David Krackhardt collected self-reported network data on knowledge sharing in the R&D division of a large multinational high tech company. They surveyed 276 researchers in 16 laboratories in Europe, and United States, and Asia, using patent generation as a measure of innovation. The study reveals that cross-organizational interaction is not enough in and of itself to promote innovation; productive relationships also rely on a network structure that stabilizes interaction and makes it possible to overcome challenges related to transferring knowledge across different backgrounds.