Who Are the Catalysts of Innovation at Your Firm?
Tortoriello, Marco; McEvily, William J.; Krackhardt, David
Original document: Being a Catalyst of Innovation: The Role of Knowledge Diversity and Network Closure
Want to innovate? Perhaps you need catalysts in your firm.
The myth of the lone genius at work is giving way to a more thorough understanding of how social networks within organizations foster innovation. Yet little attention has been paid to the people who encourage innovation without necessarily innovating themselves.
But now "catalysts of innovation" take center stage in a new study by Marco Tortoriello of IESE, Bill McEvily of the University of Toronto and David Krackhardt of Carnegie Mellon University. In their article for Organization Science, the co-authors find that the people who support, facilitate and promote innovative behavior are key to the innovation process within an organization.
So, what makes an effective catalyst of innovation? The co-authors study the social structure and relationship patterns of the research and development (R&D) department of a high-tech multinational to find out. They analyze the innovation output (in the form of patent applications) for this multinational's 276 researchers. In the end, they conclude that the people who serve as the most effective catalysts of innovation are embedded in "closed networks" and yet have access to diverse external sources of knowledge.
Open and Closed Networks
A corporate workplace is made up of informal social networks -- some open, some closed. It's natural enough: teams of engineers, marketing mavens and IT whizzes form cliques and share knowledge on their own particular subjects of expertise. The catalysts of innovation occupy key positions in closed networks, which are defined by their overlapping ties to common third parties. In other words, in closed networks, or cliques, people know each other.
Well established in closed networks, catalysts tend to know what is going on and be trusted within their circle. On top of that, effective catalysts have a clear understanding of what their colleagues do or do not know and a willingness to share knowledge to bridge these gaps.
Another crucial element that distinguishes catalysts from their network colleagues is access to diverse external sources of knowledge -- in addition to their willingness to share it. In the study, knowledge sources included conferences, scientific journals, collaboration with outside research institutions, relationships with clients and more. The data was collected via interviews, surveys and company archives.
Individuals who act as catalysts stand out not just in their knowledge and the structural position they occupy, but also in terms of innovative output. It's about enhancing output, rather than directly generating it, the co-authors note. "Being able to support and inspire others' innovativeness is critical because it is at the core of the social and collective nature of the innovation process," they write.
The authors also emphasize that, even though the catalyst role is crucial to innovation success, it is harder to see. With less visibility, the contributions of catalysts might be overlooked in an organization.
In short, being a catalyst is about having close contacts and knowledge. It's also contingent on bringing outside knowledge in to help someone who may already know a lot about a very different topic. That transfer of knowledge can create something truly new. Accordingly, individuals with an optimal combination of a strong social position within the organization and access to external knowledge are best positioned to be effective catalysts, the study finds. The proof is in the patents.
With this in mind, organizations looking to boost innovation would do well to cultivate catalysts. This may be accomplished on a department level, by organizing teams in such a way that promising individuals who are trusted by their colleagues have access to and share external sources of knowledge.
Fostering a nurturing environment is essential for innovation to thrive. Without the right catalyst, the most promising innovators may not innovate, depriving a company of their potential discoveries.
See also "Innovation: It's Also Who You Know"