What Thomas Edison Knew About Innovation Networks

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What Thomas Edison Knew About Innovation Networks

Thomas Edison was a master innovator – and master of building the right networks at the right time.

Edison, inventor and innovator extraordinaire, racked up more than 1,000 patents and created the phonograph, the motion picture camera and electric light bulb.

Through his Menlo Park Lab, he worked across industries and on diverse ventures, combining ideas and lessons learned in new ways. During this time, Edison was a pure broker, according to Andy Hargadon, speaking at the Connected Commons Summit in September. Andy, a professor at the Graduate School of Management at University of California, Davis and author of How Breakthroughs Happen and Sustainable Innovation, described Edison’s approach as that of a consultant, with an open and diverse network. His business ties were loose – he’d move from one project or problem to another with ease. His network was built for idea generation, as he brought insight and knowledge from one space into another.

But Edison’s role as an idea broker was not enough to get his version of the light bulb widely adopted. Andy explained how Edison couldn’t get the buy-in and investment needed to create the electricity infrastructure to make the light bulb viable. He was seen as a dabbler, not someone who would sustain focus and stick with something that required long-term, in-depth effort – or build the relationships and know-how to make it happen.

I was surprised to learn from Andy that Edison re-invented himself as a businessman and changing his network along the way. He invested in doing the work needed to get the right people and the right infrastructure to create a new industry. He began to build deeper, trusted ties among groups of people with similar knowledge and shared interest. He pulled together power generating companies, lighting companies, regulators, investors and so on. Edison’s network had to change for innovation to take hold, and he became a trusted connector. His company and influence had great success for many years and spurred many changes that shaped modern society.

Andy’s assessment of Edison’s networks – and their outcomes – rings true with the experiences I’ve had in developing networks for innovation.

Organizations increasingly are asking employees to collaborate across silos and boundaries, and technology makes the logistics of this seem easy. So, it’s appealing to think that greater connectivity on its own will spur the collaboration and knowledge-sharing needed to accomplish all sorts of business objectives. More likely, this approach leads to inefficiency and overload rather than either innovation or productivity.

Research and practice suggest that effective collaboration networks take different forms and require different ways to establish and support them – something I’ve written about with colleagues Rob Cross, Dimitris Assimakopoulos and Daniel Ranta in the current issue of Organizational Dynamics.

In our article, we argue that different collaborations produce different business value.

I described the example of a purpose-built innovation network that we created at Juniper Networks. As the company grew from start-up to global business, collaboration and interaction across boundaries became more difficult; innovation was hard to come by. We needed to engage innovation in a way that would be focused and effective, and apart from the formal org chart.

After conducting an Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) across sales, engineering, and infrastructure groups, we identified 85 employees from six vertical layers, 13 horizontal functions, five tenure bands and 18 locations. We jump-started innovation by bringing together this purpose-build network with people from different expertise, experience and perspective – most of whom didn’t know each other.

In just three-days of collaborating face-to-face (read more about the Innovation Challenge here), Juniper had the beginnings of a new product which was piloted with several customers within six months. This is akin to Edison’s idea-generation, make-new-things, Menlo Labs work.

In contrast, Dan worked with an oil-and-gas giant to create different kinds of networks, aligned around business goals and shared expertise. Communities of practice were established so that employees could tap into the knowledge and best practices of their peers at any location and across business units around the world. Over time, the networks grew and became trusted, efficient vehicles for getting work done – similar to Edison’s network approach as a businessman driving the creation of large-scale electricity infrastructure.

Interestingly, it seems than individuals and organizations need similar networks, depending on the purpose. If the goal is innovation (or problem solving), networks need to connect different expertise, experience and perspective. If the goal is efficiency (or implementation), networks need to connect similarexpertise, experience and perspective. In network analysis language, networks for idea generation require loose, heterogeneous ties while networks for execution demand strong, trusted homogeneous ties.

What do you think? Are networks more essential for innovating ideas or implementing ideas? What is your experience for networks for innovation compared with networks for implementation? And what actions or tools or mindsets are needed for each?

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