Networks: An Engine For Scaling Learning And Innovation (Part 3)

We live in a connected world, wait, strike that…

A highly connected world. Or as Thomas Friedman might say, we now live in a “hyperconnected world.”

Inability to tap into the diversity of thinking and novel and new ideas that exists within those networks, severely limits our individual and organizational ability to move into the future in a much more progressive and relevant manner.

It is within these spaces, these networks, that connectivity is acquired and achieved, cognitive resources and idea flows are managed and exchanged, and where provocation for action upon these ideas is often mediated, accelerated and catalyzed.

Or as the work Network Science by the National Research Council shares, “Networks lie at the core of the economic, political, and social fabric of the 21st century.” For which the National Research Council adds, “Society depends on a diversity of complex networks for its very existence.” And yet, “In spite of society’s profound dependence on networks, fundamental knowledge about them is primitive,” at best.

What we are learning, especially as we look at the scaling up and proliferation of networks across society, and the level of data and knowledge they are providing, is that today’s organizations must learn to support a much more robust and dynamic set of internal and external networks, utilizing a variety of metrics that lead to a greater understanding how divergent idea flows, as well as organizational novelty and innovation awareness and dissemination can be cascaded across the organizational landscape in much more fluid, clear and coherent manner.

Today’s organizations must be able to unlock and engage both internal and external networks, in an effort to not only tap into a diversity of voices, but a diversity and divergence of thinking and ideas. These networks not only provide a platform for engaging an ongoing flow of the novel and new, they also create a cognitive space to play with ideas that often leads to not only the creation of new knowledge, but new actions and new ways of working. Unfortunately, most organizations plateau from an inability to create more dynamic, robust and expansive networks of learning that feed forward these idea flows that lead to the creation of new knowledge and curation of new learning.

Rather, most organizational networks remain fragmented at best, unable to tap into these internal, external and periphery idea flows that feed the core of our organizational ecosystems with a steady diet of new and innovative thinking and ideas, keeping us caught in a constant iteration and amplification of the known. Constantly caught up on a never ending chasing or our own tail on the hamster wheel of what we don’t know, we don’t know.

Which again is unfortunate, as authors Krebs and Holley share in their work, Building Sustainable Communities Through Network Building, where research from as far back as the late 1990’s shows the benefits of networks within large organizations, for which the provide below:

  • Teams with better access to other teams inside and outside the organization finished their assignments faster.
  • Teams with better connections discovered, and transferred, the knowledge they needed within the organization.
  • Managers with ‘better connections’ [inside and outside the organization] spotted and developed more opportunities for their departments or organizations.
  • Project managers with better network connections were more successful in reaching project goals within time and financial parameters.

So even in the 90’s, years before the explosion of the instant access provided by today’s social networks, we see research illuminating the benefits of how networks not only allow for enhanced communication, but increased speed of learning and spread of innovation across our organizations.

As with many things, it is not an either/or proposition. It is not just about internal or external networks, rather it is about AND and the ability for both to exist in a dynamic and interrelated manner within an organization. It is about connecting the inside, both the core and periphery, as well as the outside. It is in that combination our networks allow for the access, reach, spread and scale of new and novel ideas that allow innovation to move across our organizations in a much more fluid and dynamic manner, at all levels. Or as Krebs and Holley add, “The lack of outside information, and dense cohesion, within the network, removes all possibility for new ideas and innovations.”

It will benefit today’s leaders and organizations to spend time investing in and learning how networks can better serve our individuals and organizations for scaling the level of learning and knowledge that is necessary to stay vital and relevant in a world of accelerated and often turbulent change. Or as the National Research Council puts forth in the work Network Science…

“In summary, human understanding of networks has the potential to play a vital role in the 21st century, which is witnessing the rise of the Connected Age. There is an enormous demand for information on how to design and operate large global networks in a robust, stable, and secure fashion.”


Creating Space For Emergent Innovation

“Adaptive space is the network and organizational context that allows people, ideas, information, and resources to flow across the organization and spur successful emergent innovation. It is not a physical space but instead is any environment — that creates an opportunity for ideas generated in entrepreneurial pockets of an organization to flow into its operational system.”  -Arena, Cross, Sims, Uhl-Bien via MITSloan Management Review How to Catalyze Innovation in your Organization

We often talk about the work of innovation being determined in the mindset, while approaching it in a much more physical than cognitive manner. From strategic war rooms, to innovative fab labs, incubators, accelerators, makerspaces, learning commons, as well as open, collaborative and co-working spaces. And while these environments enhance our creative and innovative thinking, we still have to understand that the creation of the physical space, without the deepening of the mindset and the environment, does little to invoke and initiate new thinking, new ideas, new systems and new actions that lead to the emergence of new value through the truly novel and new for our individuals and organizations.

Or as Arena, Cross, Sims and Uhl-Bien share, “Emergent innovation occurs when entrepreneurial individuals within an organization incubate and advance new ideas for addressing needs and dynamically changing conditions.”

Which is our responsibility in the work of professionals for the progress of our profession; to not only engage in and amplify what is considered “best” practices, but to also create new knowledge, new learning, new ideas and new thinking that leads to our engagement and infusion of “next” practices that can lead us forward into the future.

It is in the informal, formal and intentional creation of these adaptive environments that we provide the room for new ideas and thinking to take form, to percolate and incubate in and across our teams and organizations. In much the same way that Kotter’s work in Accelerate initiates the idea of a Dual-Operating System to create a parallel space which allows room for innovation to be engaged and infused into our more static and hierarchical organizations and systems.

Or as Kotter shares, “Revolutionary innovation comes about when information from a variety a places that normally don’t collide do collide and a light bulb goes off.” It is within this parallel systems of hierarchy and innovation that an organization can determine the “Big Opportunity” that stands before them.

Or as Arena, Cross, Sims and Uhl-Bien put forth, “Adaptive space within organizations is fluid and can shift based on need. Companies create adaptive space through environments that open up information flows and enrich idea discovery, development, and amplification.”

The creation of this adaptive environment allows for space where new thinking and ideas have room to germinate, percolate and incubate. But it does not stop there, for the diffusion and spread of these new and novel ideas requires diffusion of this creativity and innovation across and even beyond the organization. Which necessitates these adaptive environments serving as hubs and networks for continuous idea flows and idea pipelines, as well as the arena for intentional idea collision and remixes. It is through these hubs and internal and external networks that the transmission and circulation of innovative thinking and ideas are organizationally initiated and continuously diffused, allowing for greater awareness, promotion and availability for individual and organizational adoption.

Arena, Cross, Sims and Uhl-Bien add, “Adaptive space is needed to connect these divided channels and allow ideas to advance from the entrepreneurial (informal) to the operational (formal) system. Such adaptive space allows for networked interactions to foster the creation of ideas, innovation, and learning.”

It is within these environments and spaces that the cross-pollinating of ideas across networks allows innovation to begin to infuse itself into the normal organizational operating system and or systems. Or as the Harvard Business Review shares in regards to Kotter’s idea of the Dual-Operating System“The new operating system continually assesses the business, the industry, and the organization, and reacts with greater agility, speed, and creativity than the existing one. It complements rather than overburdens the traditional hierarchy, thus freeing the latter to do what it’s optimized to do. It actually makes enterprises easier to run and accelerates strategic change. This is not an “either or” idea. It’s “both and.” I’m proposing two systems that operate in concert.”

It is in creation of these adaptive environments and spaces provides room for “AND” to not only exist, but to provide the organization the opportunity for agility and nimbleness to allow for and begin to capitalize on the innovative thinking and ideas that are growing and emerging in these parallel environments.

Today’s effective and healthy organizations are not only intentional in their design of these cognitive, as well as physical spaces, but allow room for what emerges within these spaces and processes to germinate, incubate, thrive, expand, and diffuse throughout these informal and formal networks so that innovation can actually engage more effectively across the organizational landscape.

Building awareness of these spaces, these dual-operating systems and networks allows us to create a better vantage point to determine what’s emerging internally and external of the organization that we may better prepare the organization in the present for the future.

Without these spaces and room for new thinking and ideas, very few organizations truly tap into the full capability of their people, leaving much of their adaptive capacity and ability to continuously improve both individually and organizationally unrealized.

So, the challenge remains in how to increase organizational learning through these spaces or parallel systems and networks in ways that increase the idea pipeline and flows, both internally and externally. Increasing in ways that don’t overwhelm, but allow for greater innovative capacity and the ability to diffuse and cascade that mindset at all levels of the organization for a more relevant future.

“The value of networks and adaptive space is that they enable influential people to tell stories about an innovation they are championing in ways that echo across the network. As these stories spread, others are attracted to engage, and the network of those engaged begins to include critical stakeholders, therefore enhancing the likelihood of organizational support for the innovation.”  -Arena, Cross, Sims, Uhl-Bien via MITSloan Management Review How to Catalyze Innovation in your Organization