I’ve just come across a very interesting article on the MIT Sloan Review, looking at a study intoÂ knowledge networking and searching for expertise. The study looked at how people who work in large companies seek out important knowledge that resides somewhere in the organization, perhaps in the mind of an expert who works in another department at a different geographic location. It turns out that contrary to the famous “six degrees of separation” statement which says that you should be able to connect with anyone in the world in less that six network steps, finding and accessing the right knowledge in your organisation can be a real challenge. In a paper prepared by Morten T. Hansen, Joel M. Podolny and Jasjit Singh of INSEAD,Â an interesting experiment is outlined, in which they studied how employees of a large global organization went about finding information they needed. Specifically, the researchers tracked search chains: the paths of connections starting from the individuals who initiated the search all the way to the people who possessed the necessary knowledge. Each path might go through several intermediaries before the right person was found. The study was conducted at a large multinational consulting firm with more than 50 offices in 34 countries, the sort of organisation where individuals would be expected to seek out information regularly.
The field experiment conducted at the consulting firm first identified the company experts on four specific topics: transfer pricing, asset productivity, enterprise resource planning and advertising strategy. The consultants in the study then were asked to name those individuals. An interesting observation was that the experts were “hidden” within the organisation as they did not have anything in their titles to indicate their expertise.
Some consultants were able to identify the experts straight away, but most could only name intermediary contacts, and some of the searches took at least three or four rounds. The study found that three types of people tended to have longer search chains: employees who were relatively new, who resided at the periphery of the organization’s social network or who were female. So why is that? Partly it was because these groups were not well enough connected into the networks within the organisation. but this is where the results become intriguing. Not only did members of the three “out” groups have more trouble identifying the experts; they often compounded that difficulty by commencing their searches on the wrong foot. Typically, they started by turning to others who were like them. So, for example, new employees counted on others who were also recent arrivals. And therein lies the problem. When new employees ask for help from a colleague who is similar, they are essentially relying on someone who might, in effect, be similarly clueless. Obviously, the better approach for a newcomer would be to seek help from an old-timer.
It seems that people were inclined to connect with others in a similar situation because they were uneasy about exposing their lack of knowledge to other potentially judgemental colleagues. So a seemingly innocuous phenomenon, the tendency of people to seek help from those who are in the same boat, could well be reducing the ability of an organisation to access internal knowledge and make the right connections.
The key messages from this for innovation, where often making connections can be critical,Â are:
1. Think about where you are in your organisation, how well connected are you, i.e. might you be in one of the three groups mentioned above?
2. Make connectionsÂ withÂ people inside your organisation who are different from you, either in terms of their connections within the organisation, or their area of knowledge. Avoid justÂ connecting withÂ people who are in same boat as you.
3. Connect with connectors, who do you know who is really good at networking? Consider asking these people to act as network mentors for you and use them to challenge you to expand your networking space.
Just to let you know that a paper I’ve recently written, detailing how I used TRIZ some years ago to create a hassle-free cappuccino system, has just been published in the TRIZ Journal. In the paper, I outline the key stages of my analysis and show how I applied some of the key thinking tools of TRIZ. You know what you need to do – just go to the website, lookÂ through the article and give it a score of 5 out of 5 at the bottom.3 comments