Who Are Your Social Network Contacts?

Jan 23, 2018
As Featured In 
Journal of Applied Psychology

Your Social Network Contacts Could Determine How Innovative You Are

In new research, Vijaya Venkataramani, associate professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, and two co-authors, explore how our connections — and their connections — influence how innovative we are at work.

Venkataramani and her co-authors, the University of Connecticut’s Travis J. Grosser and the University of Kentucky’s Giuseppe (Joe) Labianca, have each conducted prior research on employee creativity.

“A lot of my previous work,” Venkataramani says, “and a lot of the previous work of my co-authors have looked at how one’s own social network, and how they are positioned in that network, can help them to become creative.”

Venkataramani and others have found that people who have extensive and diverse contacts have greater access to diverse and non-redundant information. “If you connect a lot of diverse individuals who are themselves not connected to each other, then you have access to a lot of diverse and non-redundant information,” she says. “And this non-redundant information is very important to come up with novel and creative ideas.”

In the latest paper, the researchers find that the network of your “alters” — the people you turn to for problem-solving advice — can also help you become more creative.

“We wanted to look at this issue from a different perspective — the alter-centric perspective,” Venkataramani says. “Because so far, all of the research has been about the ego — in other words, what my own social network might help me achieve.”

The researchers conducted a social network study, taking a close look at the people who are sought out for problem-solving advice and examining their characteristics.

“So, what are the characteristics of these other people that influence me? That is the crux of the paper,” she says.

If your alters have high creative self efficacy, this affects their innovative behavior, and in turn, benefits your own innovation because interacting with such alters helps you break mental sets, shift perspective and accurately evaluate the merit of creative ideas. These alters also serve as innovation role models.

Venkataramani further explains: The likelihood that you will also be affected by that creativity will be stronger when these alters’ networks are less dense (i.e., when their own contacts are sparsely linked).

As Venkataramani and her authors argue, “In creative problem solving collaborations that frequently involve interaction between individuals who come from different knowledge domains, an alter’s ability to effectively translate their knowledge to diverse audiences is also a critical factor in determining their effectiveness as a problem solving partner. Individuals with low-density personal networks are likely to develop skill in effectively communicating complex information to diverse audiences. And that benefits you when you are interacting with them.”

The researchers collected data from a U.S.-based Fortune 1,000 consumer product development firm. Due to recent industry changes and competitive pressures "the stakes were high, and provided a very relevant context to study innovation,” Venkataramani says.

The researchers conducted a social network study, asking employees to name the colleagues they go to discuss problems or ideas. They then looked at those colleagues, measuring their self-efficacy and the diversity of their network contacts. And finally, they asked all of the participants to rate the innovative behavior of everyone else to establish consensus.

The findings may have implications for organizations as they seek to encourage the kinds of interactions that spark innovation, the study says. Those organizations might adopt policies that aim to help employees develop wide and diverse networks that are less dense in nature.

“There is this paradox,” Venkataramani says. “You need dense networks, because they help in cooperation, and they help people find help and emotional support. But there is also a flip side to that. The more you talk to people who think just like you, the less likely you are to think differently, or outside of the box. So it is a question of striking the right balance.”

Finding that balance, however, can prove tricky. 

“If you want to become more creative, you don’t want to immediately reach out to others for help; instead, you observe potential collaborators first so that you might assess their creative efficacy and innovativeness before approaching them for problem solving assistance. It is also important that your collaborators themselves have sparse connections. Dense ties where everyone talks and discusses problems with everyone else just tend to echo each others’ ideas and reduce the likelihood of radically new insights.

Still, figuring out that sweet spot can lead to invaluable acumen. 

"The novelty of the ideas that you are able to come up with is much higher if you are able to combine insights from unrelated areas,” Venkataramani adds. “That’s where the real ‘a ha!’ moment comes from.”

Read more: An Alter-Centric Perspective on Employee Innovation: The Importance of Alters' Creative Self-Efficacy and Network Structure is featured in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

About the Author(s)

Vijaya Venkataramani

Vijaya Venkataramani is an Associate Professor of Management & Organization at the R.H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. She currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Applied Psychology. Professor Venkataramani's research focuses on how informal social relationships and social networks at work influence leadership, creativity, and discretionary employee behaviors in organizations (behaviors that are not stipulated as part of the job, but that still are important for organizational well-being).

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