How to create employee networks that deliver open innovation

A small number of idea scouts and idea connectors are disproportionately influential in producing successful open innovation outcomes. Smart companies make sure they are linked.

Companies such as Procter & Gamble, Cisco Systems, Genzyme, General Electric and Intel are often credited with having attained market leadership through open innovation strategies. But while other organizations try to follow the example set by these trailblazers, our research shows that many are failing because they neglect to ensure that the outside ideas reach the people best equipped to exploit them.

To study the process of how outside ideas take root (or fail to do so) inside a company, we performed an organizational network analysis on a leading player in the medical-devices industry — in particular, an R&D unit assigned to advance the company’s stent-delivery technology.

Highlighted were three employees: Tom and Mike (idea scouts) and Helen (an idea connector). In an interview, Tom explained that he often becomes aware of emerging developments that have potential value for the company. While he attempts to distribute such information throughout the internal network himself, he acknowledged that his efforts often fail. Tom’s efforts usually involve his sending out a blanket e-mail to 20 or so colleagues. However, his R&D colleagues explained to us that because they suffer from “inbox overload,” if an e-mail does not appear to be directly relevant to them, it is usually deleted. Thus Tom’s idea-scouting abilities are wasted.

Contrast Tom’s case with that of Mike. Like Tom, Mike is an idea scout who has few strong connections internally. However, Mike is linked to Helen — an idea connector who does have an extensive network together with the know-how to distribute the information Mike acquires. Connectors such as Helen are the go-to people of the organization. When they are made aware of an opportunity for innovation, connectors not only know who in the company is best equipped to exploit that idea but also possess the social capital needed to rapidly deploy the network to meet that particular challenge.

This article is adapted from “Creating Employee Networks That Deliver Open Innovation” by Eoin Whelan, Salvatore Parise, Jasper de Valk and Rick Aalbers, which appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.