Innovation comes from individuals

Innovation comes from individuals – How people’s own search patterns might affect companies’ innovation outcomes

How people’s own search patterns might affect companies’ innovation outcomes

When we talk about a company’s ability to innovate, we tend to forget that the “who” matters just as much as the “how”. New research on individuals in dedicated search roles at IBM sheds light on this human factor.

How can a company best join the quest for innovation? All innovation stems—to some degree—from recombinations of known knowledge into something new. In this process, exposure to a broad range of partners creates a wider knowledge base for recombination and, ultimately, more innovative outcomes.

Allocating limited time

Despite its central role in company strategy, innovation is never pursued at the company level; instead, it is completed by individuals appointed to the task. Given the potential wealth of available information, every search carries a cost in terms of time to complete. However, individuals’ time and attention are scarce: we all have only 24 hours in a day. So, how do individuals’ choices about how to spend their time affect their innovation outcomes? Along with my colleagues Siobhan O’Mahony, of the Boston University School of Management, and David M. Gann, of the Imperial College London, I have conducted research that shifts the focus to people’s own search patterns and how these affect innovation outcomes.

Our study took place within IBM’s elite group of Distinguished Engineers and Academy of Technology members. This group is responsible for a substantial percentage of IBM’s patents, and IBM has been the most active patenting organization in the U.S. for the last 19 years. These high-performing, senior technical experts are granted significant autonomy in how they search for innovation and spend their time. More than half of the 615 contacted individuals responded to the survey. We asked the participants how many different types of partners they engaged with, whether these partners could be found outside their own fields, and how they allocated their time among competing alternatives.

Looking beyond the firm’s walls

When it comes to innovation, looking beyond a firm’s walls seems intuitive. However, spending time inside an organization is also crucial for understanding what a firm really wants and needs. Therefore, we asked the respondents to share how they allocated their time inside and outside their organizations. Using multiple methods, including interviews, workshops, complete patent data, and a survey distributed to IBM’s most senior engineers and scientists, we showed how distinct strategies for external searches generate new ideas and how the success of each strategy is moderated by relationships internal to the organization.

By working closely with senior IBM scientists and engineers, including the CTO, we were also able to uncover a surprising insight. Many scholars have attributed a wide range of benefits to having a diversity of partners in external networks, and these benefits have seemed to resonate with managers and students around the world, many of whom are keen to “network” and form as many ties as possible with diverse partners. However, by contrast, we found that most people’s capacities for innovation are completely unaffected by increased diversity in their external networks, since people’s most common sources of inspiration are their colleagues. The few individuals who do gain from external search breadth are also those who allocate significant attention to people outside their organizations. This suggests that having ties with external partners is not cheap and requires substantial investments of attention. In addition, we show that many people misallocate their attention, suggesting that individuals might become more innovative by changing their behaviors. So, instead of spending time trying to expand their networks and increase network diversity, innovators may be better served by simply “sticking to their knitting” and deepening their existing relationships with local colleagues.

Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Organizational Behavior, Strategy