Managing Innovation in Small Worlds

The flow of information, ideas and talent across organizational boundaries presents unique opportunities and potential threats.

The lone scientist who makes breakthrough discoveries is more myth than reality. Thomas Alva Edison, for instance, did not invent the electric light bulb, phonograph and motion pictures all on his own. In truth, those products were the results of years of hard work by teams of researchers. At one point, Edison’s labs employed hundreds of people in a veritable invention factory. Indeed, innovation is typically a group effort, not an individual undertaking. But how exactly do researchers collaborate with one another to innovate?

To answer that, we compiled a dataset identifying all coauthorship relationships of U.S. patent inventors from 1975 through 1999. More than two million unique individual inventors and their patent coauthors were identified for that time period, and the data revealed trends that spilled across time and across company and geographic boundaries. To investigate those trends, we interviewed a representative sample of inventors about their social and collaborative networks, career moves and job changes. (The complete study is contained in “Managing Creativity in Small Worlds,” which was published in the summer 2006 issue of the California Management Review.)

From plots of the data, we discovered that the social network of innovators is a small world, with various clusters of people interconnected by different gatekeepers, individuals who bridge one group with another. The unique features of this type of social network — characterized by intense clustering with occasional bridging ties — confer important benefits in the innovation process. The tight clustering of scientists and engineers engenders trust and the free sharing of information and diffusion of ideas, thus facilitating creativity. But the downside is that the creative process of an isolated team of inventors can go stale as the individuals become vulnerable to group-think, thus decreasing the likelihood that they will come up with novel ideas. That’s why bridges between clusters are crucial, because they bring in fresh information that can help spark the creativity of an insular group of inventors.

Inventors on the Move

Historically, engineers and scientists tended to work within local clusters of collaboration that were isolated within a company (or within a division of a large corporation). Recently, though, people have become increasingly mobile, changing jobs with greater frequency, and these formerly isolated clusters have begun to interconnect into larger networks through which information flows more freely among companies.