Based on Research By Jing Zhou

How Social Networks Make Workers Creative

  • Social networks are powerful engines of worker creativity.
  • The importance of these networks lies beyond just the immediate interactions between members, it’s also in the indirect links they provide.
  • Employee networks that are two steps removed and non-redundant are best for inspiring a diverse universe of ideas.

Innovation is a team sport. We know that creative workplaces represent a series of social networks, each brimming with useful ideas and expertise. And there is clearly a link between innovation within a firm and the colleagues and friends with whom employees hobnob off duty.

But how exactly does that alchemy happen? What’s the relationship between creativity and the hive of direct and indirect contacts in an employee’s cellphone?

A recent study by Jing Zhou of the business school, Giles Hirst of Australian National University, Daan Van Knippenberg of Erasmus University, Eric Quintane of the University of Los Andes and Cherrie Zhu of Monash University sheds new light on this. Mapping the social networks that underlie a creative workplace, the researchers showed that employee creativity rises when social networks are more diverse.

The researchers started with the premise that direct links in a network are offshoots of larger networks. The more diverse these indirect networks are, the researchers found, the more likely that innovative concepts will appear in a company’s intellectual landscape.

The most efficient resources for gathering novel perspectives are networks made up of two-step “non-redundant ties”—that is, people you may not interact with directly, but with whom your direct ties do interact. These contacts are effectively the raw material employees use to come up with new ideas and ways of working. But why are these indirect networks so important? They diversify the thinking of the group, Zhou and her colleagues argue. Because these networks include individuals who are not necessarily linked, they lower the chances of groupthink or stale ideas.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers looked at the social networks of a large, state-owned pharmacy corporation in the People’s Republic of China. Examining 11 divisions, each with roughly 25 sales representatives, the team studied creativity among the sales representatives. Evenly divided between men and women, the representatives were, on average, 35 years of age with approximately 10 years’ of experience. Some had developed networks so large that they reached beyond the corporation’s geographic territory.

The representatives’ creativity manifested itself in a range of forms: new ways to promote products, strategies to cross-sell products, ideas for connecting with hard-to-access sales targets and plans for boosting client sales. The ideas included making products more visible in retail outlets and personalizing product launches to push customers to specific distributors. Because this kind of inventiveness is critical to gaining an edge, it’s one of the most important tools in pharmaceutical marketing.

The researchers devised a matrix that matched sales metrics and managers’ creativity rankings to the types of social networks the representatives had. The map showed clearly that a two-step, indirect network with few redundancies correlated to individual creativity. When networks were further removed than this, employee creativity was unchanged.

The implication: Firms should attend closely to the kind of social networks their workers cultivate. Not only that, it’s possible to teach employees how to design networks for maximum efficiency. Persuading employees to make that effort might be another matter. Luckily, possible incentives abound, from bonuses to the satisfactions of a varied network to the simple pleasure of a more ample expense account. Executives just need to get creative in making their case.

Jing Zhou is Houston Endowment Professor of Management and Director for Asian Management Research and Education at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Hirst, G., Van Knippenberg, D., Zhou, J., Quintane, E., & Zhu, C. (2015). Heard it through the grapevine: Indirect networks and employee creativity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 567-574.