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Innovations never happen without good ideas. But what prompts people to come up with their best ideas? It’s hard to beat old-fashioned, face-to-face networking. Even Steve Jobs, renowned for his digital evangelism, recognized the importance of social interaction in achieving innovation. In his role as CEO of Pixar Animation Studios (a role he held in addition to being a cofounder and CEO of Apple Inc.), Jobs instructed the architect of Pixar’s new headquarters to design physical space that encouraged staff to get out of their offices and mingle, particularly with those with whom they normally wouldn’t interact. Jobs believed that serendipitous exchanges fueled innovation.1
A multitude of empirical studies confirm what Jobs intuitively knew.2 The more diverse a person’s social network, the more likely that person is to be innovative. A diverse network provides exposure to people from different fields who behave and think differently. Good ideas emerge when the new information received is combined with what a person already knows. But in today’s digitally connected world, many relationships are formed and maintained online through public social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Increasingly, employees are using such platforms for work-related purposes.3
Studying Twitter Networks
Can Twitter make employees more innovative? In particular, does having a greater diversity of virtual Twitter connections mean that good ideas are more likely to surface, as in the face-to-face world? To answer this question, we used a technique called organizational network analysis (ONA) to create visual representations of employee Twitter networks. We studied ten employee groups across five companies in a range of industries. (See “About the Research.”)
For example, EMC Corporation, a leading company in the information storage and infrastructure industry that is based in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, was one of the companies we studied. We analyzed hundreds of ideas submitted by EMC employees as part of their internal idea management system and correlated that behavior with Twitter usage. Here’s what we found.
First, Twitter users and non-users generally submitted the same number of ideas.
1. W. Isaacson, “Steve Jobs” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011): 431.
2. Ron Burt’s seminal study on structural holes has proven to be influential in explaining how people accrue advantages from their social network. Gaps in a social network, called structural holes, create brokerage opportunities. People on either side of the hole circulate in different flows of information, and benefits accrue to those individuals whose relationships span the structural hole. See R.S. Burt, “Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press, 1992).
3. See, for example, N.G. Barnes, A.M. Lescault and K.D. Augusto, “LinkedIn Dominates, Twitter Trends and Facebook Falls: The 2014 Inc. 500 and Social Media,” research report conducted by The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 2015, www.umassd.edu/cmr/socialmediaresearch/2015fortune500andsocialmedia.
4. Coined by Wesley M. Cohen and Daniel A. Levinthal, the term “absorptive capacity” refers to an organization’s ability to assimilate and replicate new knowledge gained from external sources. A substantial body of research demonstrates that absorptive capacity contributes directly and indirectly to company performance. See W.M. Cohen and D.A. Levinthal, “Absorptive Capacity: A New Perspective on Learning and Innovation,” Administrative Science Quarterly 35, no. 1 (March 1990): 128-152.
5. E. Whelan, S. Parise, J. De Valk and R. Aalbers, “Creating Employee Networks That Deliver Open Innovation,” MIT Sloan Management Review 53, no. 1 (fall 2011): 37-44.
6. M.T. Hansen, “Knowledge Networks: Explaining Effective Knowledge Sharing in Multiunit Companies,” Organization Science 13, no. 3 (May-June 2002): 232-248.
i. The supervisor rating questions include: “Please rate your level of agreement with the following statements: (1 =strongly disagree to 6 =strongly agree): (1) This person generates creative work-related ideas. (2) This person promotes and champions work-related ideas to others.” These two items are adapted from: S.G. Scott and R.A. Bruce, “Determinants of Innovative Behavior: A Path Model of Individual Innovation in the Workplace,” Academy of Management Journal 37, no. 3 (June 1994): 580-607.