Posted on Harvard Business Review: March 8, 2011 10:06 AM
Too often new collaborative technologies—though intended to connect employees seamlessly and enable work to get done more efficiently—are misused in ways that impede innovation and hurt performance.
Age-old wisdom suggests it is not what but whom you know that matters. Over decades this truism has been supported by a great deal of research on networks. Work since the 1970s shows that people who maintain certain kinds of networks do better: They are promoted more rapidly than their peers, make more money, are more likely to find a job if they lose their own, and are more likely to be considered high performers.
But the secret to these networks has never been their size. Simply following the advice of self-help books and building mammoth Rolodexes or Facebook accounts actually tends to hurt performance as well as have a negative effect on health and well-being at work. Rather, the people who do better tend to have more ties to people who themselves are not connected. People with ties to the less-connected are more likely to hear about ideas that haven't gotten exposure elsewhere, and are able to piece together opportunities in ways that less-effectively-networked colleagues cannot.
If bigger is not better in networks, what is the actual impact of social media tools in the workforce? The answer: They are as likely to actually hurt performance and engagement as they are to help—if they simply foist more collaborative demands on an already-overloaded workforce. In most places, people are drowning in collaborative demands imposed by meetings, emails, and phone calls. For most of us, these activities consume 75% to 90% of a typical work week and constitute a gauntlet to get to the work we must do. In this context, new collaborative technologies, when not used appropriately, are over-loading us all and diminishing efficiency and innovation at work.
One study conducted by my colleagues Peter Gray of the University of Virginia and Sal Parise and Bala Iyer of Babson College that will soon be published in MIS Quarterly suggests that the same kind of networks important in face-to-face interactions also matter in social media. Peter, Sal and Bala studied a social-bookmarking system in a major consultancy. These applications, increasingly used in many knowledge-intensive work settings, allow employees to search on website bookmarks and tags other employees have made to their favorite websites and so see what these colleagues have been reading lately. It turns out this is a low-cost way of sharing information and knowledge that is rapidly overcoming many of the drawbacks of older generations of knowledge-management systems.
Peter, Sal, and Bala sought to discover whether these systems could help employees be more innovative at work by helping them connect ideas from different contexts. What they found was that innovativeness had nothing to do with the number of bookmarks accessed or even the number of people an individual connected to through the bookmarking system. Employees that were rated as more innovative didn't have bigger networks; rather, they had more bridging ties—ties that connected them to other employees who were themselves not connected.
The better-rated employees had networks that looked like Susan's—not Richard's (seen at right).
Practically, this means we need to think about where our electronic links are taking us. If we are circulating too much with people we have known forever or people who themselves are all spending time in the same meetings and interactions, then we are not getting the performance impact we can from social-media tools. Bigger is not better. The magic lies in the new ideas and perspectives that can come from connections into different networks.
Rob Cross is an associate professor of management in the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on how relationships and informal networks in organizations can be analyzed and improved to promote performance and innovation.