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.”


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