Three Ways to Increase Innovation Through Stronger Social Connections

Innovation has become somewhat of a buzzword recently.  A quick search for the term on Fast Company’s website returned an astounding 57,500 results.  My LinkedIn headlines frequently include articles about innovation and how companies can encourage and support it.  My Twitter feed is kept alive with links to blog posts like, “5 Ways to Increase Innovation in Your Company Now” and “How to Innovate Like Apple.”

With so much advice and guidance on being innovative, I’ve started to wonder if there is indeed a way to intentionally create a corporate environment that enhances and encourages innovation.  What methods can companies put into practice to encourage new thinking across the organization?

A 2012 study conducted by the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies (CAHRS) at Cornell University called Building Strong Social Connections Increases Innovation Capability concluded that fostering strong social connections within a company increases innovation capability.

The authors discovered four key characteristics common to the most innovative work groups:

  • Members of the group must effectively share knowledge with one another, to include identifying who knows what
  • Team members must have access to outside perspectives and knowledge
  • The group must have tangible resources available to foster development of new ideas
  • From an HR level, the organization must institute “social capital enhancing” HR practices

Here are three ways you can use this information to create a culture of collaboration and innovation within your company:

  1. Internal peer groups:  Implementing a collaborative, peer-based executive development program provides a mechanism to help leadership teams establish stronger social ties with each other, both within the work group and from different parts of the organization.  Peer advisory groups that meet on a regular basis encourage the sharing of information and help members understand who knows what within the organization, while providing perspective on initiatives happening throughout the company.  The increased level of trust resulting from regular peer group meetings helps reduce resistance to sharing of information – which, in turn, leads to a better culture for innovation.
  2. Corporate social networks:  many companies are leveraging internal collaboration and social tools like Yammer, Jive, or even Facebook to encourage the sharing of information across the organization – not just in smaller teams or business units.  As a result, employees in different parts of the company can solve common challenges more quickly.  “Gamification” refers to a way in which a company can encourage broader participation in enterprise social tools by rewarding those who contribute the most with rankings or badges to demonstrate their expertise.  The result is increased engagement among employees and more sharing across the organization.  According to a 2011 Gartner Research Report it is estimated that by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.
  3. Cross-functional rotational assignments: the idea of job rotation through an organization has been around for quite some time — and for good reason.  Rotational assignments provide on-the-job training for employees and help them develop a broader view of the organization.  As employees rise through the ranks, the lasting professional connections they have made allows them to share information and ideas more easily – especially when given the social tools and peer group programs described above.

While most companies will talk about the importance of fostering innovation within their ranks, few will commit to putting in place the types of social capital enhancing tools that the Cornell research suggests.  Considering the three suggestions above will certainly help your company move in the right direction.

What types of practices does your company have in place to create a culture of innovation?

Category: Innovation Talent Management

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About the Author: John Ruzicka

John Ruzicka is the Manager of Senior Executive Programs for Vistage Inside.  Prior to joining Vistage, John was with the University of San Diego, where he spent five years marketing for the graduate programs in the Scho…

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  1. @SusanRadojevic

    February 5, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Hello John! We found your post very valuable that Vistage gave us the go ahead to post it on our site.

    To answer your question, one of the most effective ways I know of cross-pollinating
    ideas within and outside of an organization is through business events. Most
    folks don’t realize that events are an extremely effective enabler. And CEOs can use them to cultivate new positive and long lasting behaviour and new ways of thinking and communicating. The kind of attributes needed to inspire innovation.

    Sadly, more often than not, CEOs overlook the contributions business events can make. Partly because when they hear the word ‘events’ the tendency is to jump to the travel and social elements associated with events and not the business value events can create.

    Business events are much much more than that. They are strategic. And…a great leadership intervention tool in a time of constant change and uncertainty.

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