Strategic networking: how highly skilled professionals can best use their networks to drive innovation

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Imperial College Business School


People's professional networks have been shown to influence creativity, innovation and career success. In an environment of open innovation in which individual workers are increasingly expected to search new knowledge and ideas beyond their organization, developing a strong and diverse network with colleagues and outsiders is essential for their ability to develop new technologies and innovations.

Existing research at the interface of networks and innovation has shown that certain network configurations such as 'structural holes' are associated with innovative outcomes. In addition, it has developed conceptual roles such as 'gatekeepers' and 'boundary-spanners' that describe an individual's crucial role in accessing external knowledge and transmitting it within the organization.

Despite its strong merits in recent years, this literature overlooks two fundamental properties of networks. First, most network studies map an individual's network of core contacts without much reference to when individuals use certain contacts and what for. Yet, the people one refers to for the initial formulation of new ideas may well be different from those one needs to implement them. Second, no work has addressed how individuals might differ from one another in terms of the sequence in which they 'activate' certain network connections. For example, to find support for a radically new technology, some would prefer to pitch the idea with peers first, whereas others would discuss directly with senior managers to see whether the idea resonates with them.

My project aims to push the frontier in innovation network research by sensing the purpose and sequence of network connections. These two network properties feed into a new concept I label 'network strategies'. Focusing on highly skilled professionals who work on creative tasks (e.g. R&D scientists and engineers, management consultants, architects, etc.), the study seeks to understand differences in how individuals use their professional networks and examines which network strategies are most effective to develop innovations.

In this approach, I connect to an emerging body of research that conceptualizes networks as a strategic device for achieving specific objectives. Individuals make deliberate and strategic choices in their networks to obtain access to information, advice, knowledge or resources and, as yet, we have limited understanding of the logic underpinning those choices. This study aims to bring to the surface the unwritten 'user manual' of networks, examining how this manual may be different for diverse sets of individuals and diverse types of innovation. It will also address how the work context in which professional workers pursue innovation may influence which network choices are most likely to lead to the desired outcomes.

A better understanding of individual behaviour in relation to the use of their networks and the implications this has for their ability to produce innovations is critical to help individuals and organizations deliver the next generation of innovative products, processes and technologies. In this light, the project aims to provide lessons on how organizations can facilitate individuals taking best advantage of their networks, successfully harnessing external ideas and implementing them internally. Building on successful collaborations with IBM, Arup, and other UK-based companies, I will work with three (new and existing) corporate partners in the proposed study. The study relies on a novel toolkit of data collection methods, including surveys with scenario-based questions to obtain contextualized network data and online network monitoring tools to obtain longitudinal data. The corporate partners play an active role throughout the study from its design to the final stage, where implications for managerial practice and opportunities for training will be discussed.

Planned Impact

The proposed study speaks to the fundamental question of how individual action - i.e. network strategies - translates into innovative outputs. New insights into this question can help organizations and individuals realize their potential to develop a new generation of technology and innovation. Innovation is increasingly considered to be one of the most important drivers of future economic growth and prosperity and is an essential building block of the UK's long-term development strategy. The proposed research aims to generate new insights for four types of beneficiaries.

First, the corporate partners involved in the project will draw immediate benefit from the research. Through close cooperation throughout all stages of the research, the study will be designed to speak to fundamental challenges that these organizations face. Through continued engagement, my research will provide valuable guidance on how organizations can proactively harness the potential of individuals' networks for innovation, helping them make informed choices about optimizing incentive or knowledge management systems to help their staff extract more value from their networks. To this end, I will organize an experience-sharing workshop with the corporate partners that will allow these companies to compare and contrast current and best practice in terms of networks and innovation.

Second, the study aims to benefit the individual participants in the study. The survey and network tracking tool are not only meant to collect data, they are also explicitly designed to be a learning experience for the participants. People are often unaware of how their professional network looks and how they use it. As such, they are ill-equipped when trying to benefit from their connections to achieve certain objectives. For example, individual employees who collaborate with external parties are often unaware of which external connection they are the main point of contact for on behalf of the organization, failing to realize that the information they access through such channels may be of unique value. The online or mobile network tracking tool will be designed to incorporate built-in feedback to participants heightening awareness of how they are currently using their network and making them realize how they may do things differently to extract greater benefits from their network.

Third, the study aims to extend the research impact beyond the study's corporate partners and individual participants to students and business practitioners. To this end, I will embed learning from the research as described above into a range of teaching materials. Building on my experience from incorporating lessons from past projects in executive education for several clients, I will develop an MBA elective course, new material for MSc programmes and corporate training programmes through Executive Education. Given the importance of networks for career success (among other things), awareness of the principles that underlie the formation of networks and insights into how individuals (can best) use their professional networks in the development of innovation will be of great value for (future) innovators and managers educated at Imperial College London.

Fourth, to disseminate the managerial implications of my research to a broader audience of public-sector and business practitioners, I aim to publish a paper in a practitioner journal and organize two evening events targeted at a broad audience of practitioners. Taken together, through 'engaged scholarship' the project aims to unveil the fundamental principles that drive individuals' use of their networks and the impact this has on their ability to develop innovations. New insights from the project will inform a broad range of individuals and organizations how they can better exploit the opportunities that arise from their professional networks.
Description The primary objective of the funded research was to push the frontier of research at the interface of networks and innovation. Focusing on highly skilled professionals who work on creative tasks such as R&D scientists, entrepreneurs, and technical managers, the central question was how such individuals make strategic use of their networks to drive the creation and implementation of innovations. The research has generated key findings related to three main areas of management research that this question alludes to: creativity research, the management of open innovation, and social networks research.

The first set of findings - related to creativity research - focuses on a deeper understanding of how individuals manage the difficulties associated with working on creative tasks in large organizations. Research and development (R&D) scientists seeking to pursue unconventional new approaches in the development of innovations often face high levels of skepticism from managers, risking their ideas being discarded before they have had a chance to develop and show promise. My research, published in Organization Science in 2014, found that, to mitigate such risks, R&D scientists often resort to underground, "bootleg" R&D activities that have no formal organizational support. The study showed that the less constrained exploration and delayed assessment of early-stage ideas associated with bootlegging helped R&D scientists achieve higher levels of innovative performance. Furthermore, the research showed that the costs and benefits of bootlegging for innovation are dependent on the emphasis on the enforcement of organizational norms in the individual's work environment; it appears that the benefits of an individual's bootlegging efforts are enhanced in work units with high levels of innovative performance and which include members who are also engaged in bootlegging. However, during periods of organizational change involving formalization of the R&D process, scientists who increased their bootlegging activities were less likely to innovate.

The second set of findings relates to the management of open innovation. In a bid to increase their innovative performance organizations are increasingly encouraging their scientists and engineers to build networks that span organizational boundaries and to source knowledge externally. My research shed light on the challenges that individuals face in the daily pursuit of open innovation. Drawing on the experiences of R&D professionals, my research, published in the California Management Review in 2014, identified four specific challenges and coping strategies for individuals engaged in open innovation. It proposed a range of open innovation practices that organizations can implement to better equip their staff to undertake effective external engagement. In a further article in Research Policy in 2017 we elaborate the roles that individuals play in the absorption of external knowledge through open innovation and its successful implementation in innovation. In addition to gatekeepers that played a prominent role in the prior literature, we identify the role of shepherds. Unlike gatekeepers who combine external search and knowledge assimilation activities, shepherds combine assimilation activities with championing efforts that promote the utilization of external knowledge. That is, we show that gatekeepers who combine external search with assimilation effort help to achieve innovation by contributing to building potential absorptive capacity, while shepherds who combine assimilation with utilization effort aid innovation by building realized absorptive capacity.

Although existing research has demonstrated that open innovation typically benefits organizational innovation performance, it was unclear how the openness of individuals to external sources of knowledge affected individual ideation performance: their ability to develop new, useful innovative ideas for their organization. My research, published in the Journal of Product Innovation Management in 2014, demonstrated that R&D scientists' openness to external sources of knowledge was positively related to their ideation performance up to a threshold. Openness provides benefits such as alertness and variety which contribute to ideation. Only when individual openness exceeds a high threshold value do the integration and approval costs associated with the use of external knowledge outweigh the alertness and variety benefits. We also found that the point at which the costs are greater than the benefits of openness depends on the time horizon of individuals' R&D efforts, the overall breadth of the knowledge and their connections to senior managers.

The third set of findings is closest to the core focus of area of my research: social capital and social networks research. The research has generated the following insights.

In an article, published in Administrative Science Quarterly, I address a key theoretical challenge in social capital research. There is a critical theoretical tension between open networks rich in so-called structural holes which provide access to diverse information, and closed networks with many shared third-party connections which offer trusted information that is easier to interpret. This raises the question of how members of a network can derive diverse, yet trusted and interpretable information from their networks. My article integrates network structure and actor diversity arguments to propose two types of network configurations that combine these advantages. Closed-diverse networks offer variety due to the heterogeneity of members' knowledge domains, whereby shared third-party connections help them assess trustworthiness and application of diverse information. In open-specialized networks, structural holes offer variety while shared interpretative schema based on similarity of knowledge domains help network members interpret new information independently, without the help of third parties. In contrast, members of open-diverse networks suffer from overloading as they lack shared schema for the interpretation of diverse information, and members of closed-specialized networks suffer from over-embeddedness because information variety is compromised. In the article, my co-authors and I test these arguments on the effect of investors' social capital on the success of their portfolio ventures, using CrunchBase data on venture capital investments in the U.S. information technology sector. Controlling for venture and syndicate quality and potential selection effects, we find strong support for our predictions.

In a second article, published in ASQ, we explore how R&D managers and technologists who work together to generate innovations can benefit from each other's networks. Specifically, organizations typically employ a division of labor between specialist creator roles and generalist business roles in a bid to orchestrate innovation. We seek to determine the extent to which individuals dividing the work across roles can also benefit from dividing their network. We argue that collaborating individuals benefit from connecting to the same groups but different individuals within those groups-an approach we label dual networking-rather than from a pure divide-and-conquer approach. To test this argument, we study a dual career-ladder setting in a large multinational in which R&D managers and technologists partner up in their quest for innovation. We find that collaborators who engage in dual networking attain an innovation performance advantage over those who connect to distinct groups. This advantage stems from the opportunity to engage in the dual interpretation of input the partners receive, as well as from dual influencing that helps them to gain momentum for their proposed innovations, and it leads to more effective elaboration and championing of their ideas. In demonstrating these effects, we advance understanding of how collaborators organize their networking activities to best achieve innovative outcomes.
Exploitation Route The findings described above have so far benefitted three main groups.

First, the research has been of direct benefit of the companies I have worked with. My ambition to do research that is closely linked to key managerial challenges makes the findings of direct relevance to managers seeking to address such challenges. For example, the research on bootlegging, published in Organization Science (2014) has pushed the organization where the study was placed to rethink how they can offer greater levels of autonomy to their R&D staff and has led to the implementation of new practices.

A second beneficiary of my research are the individuals who took part in the interviews and surveys funded by this research. In particular, survey participants at one organization obtained an instant visualization of their personal network - alongside some key network statistics benchmarked against a reference group - that helped them gain insights in the key properties of their network relative to others and helped them identify opportunities for network improvement. Face-to-face pilot sessions with a sub-set of participants further helped individuals achieve better use of their networks.

The third group of beneficiaries of my research are students. I organized two training sessions for PhD students and early career researchers interested in networks-innovation research. I also incorporated lessons on networks and networking in the Innovation Management course I taught at the MSc Management programme at Imperial College Business School.

The final group of beneficiaries are managers and practitioners more broadly. My publication in California Management Review is directly targeted at an audience of management practitioners offering a range of solutions and practices organizations may introduce to help their staff to be more effective at open innovation.
Sectors Chemicals,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Electronics,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy

Description My research has generated impact in three main ways. First, it has benefited my corporate research partners directly. After concluding the interview-based and survey-based research projects in Neptune, we have been invited at various occasions to present our results to help inform innovation strategy in general, and shape training of R&D staff in particular. Findings in relation to how R&D managers and technologists can best leverage their networks for innovation bear direct implications for how our research partner seeks to support its staff in achieving innovative outcomes. In 2020 our research impact on Neptune culminated in a letter of support from Neptune's CTO which we intend to submit as evidence for a (confidential) REF Impact Case Study Second, through my publication in California Management review, findings from my research have reached an audience of management practitioners. The paper contains concrete advice as to how organizations can better support their staff to benefit from open innovation. Finally, I have incorporated my research findings in my teaching. Particularly, I have taught session on "Leveraging your network for innovation" to various groups of Executive Education participants, including a cohort of senior managers in large Japanese technology firm and young professionals on an open programme. After the duration of the grant, insights from my grant have fed into the development of an MBA elective course designed to teach effective networking in the context of innovation and entrepreneurship. This class has run once in 2017 and once in 2018.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Creative Economy,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy
Impact Types Economic

Description Advice to Imperial College London on the creation of an innovation district at its new campus at Imperial West
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Description Effective networking workshop for technical managers in UK-based multinational
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact I organized a workshop for 16 technical managers working for the UK subsidiary of a large technology-intensive multinational company (name withheld for confidentiality reasons). This workshop is a pilot study that preceded a larger-scale research study that is to be rolled out later. Participants (senior technical managers) completed a network survey prior to the workshop, upon the completion of which an automated network report was generated. This report visualized their social network (advice network) within the organization alongside some network statistics compared against their peers. This report provided the basis for a discussion on how their network enabled or constrained technical managers to be effective in their jobs.
Description ERC Starting Grant
Amount € 1,334,616 (EUR)
Funding ID 715280 N4I_CLUSTERS ERC-2016-StG 
Organisation European Research Council (ERC) 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 03/2017 
End 02/2022
Title Dedicated online survey tool tailored to the specifics of network surveys 
Description Part of my grant funded the development of a dedicated online survey tool - also used by colleagues at Imperial and other universities in the UK - that was designed to accommodate the specific needs associated with network surveys. Amongst other things, it enables the instant visual rendering of the participants' network structure, alongside some network statistics benchmarked against a reference group. The tool has been used for two large-scale corporate surveys funded by this research (one with the visualization tool; one without). A version of the tool has also been used for in-class use (for a session on the Management of Networks for MSc students) and a for a pilot training session with a corporate research partner (see entry under Impact on Practice). 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2014 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The tool has allowed surveys to incorporate more imaganitive network questions that standard online survey packages could not accommodate, allowing me to obtain unique fine-grained network data for my research. It also provided survey participants directly with insights into the structure and composition of their network, which helps their awareness of how their network looks relative to others and helps them reflect on how they may want to improve or change their network. The tool is also being used by colleagues at Imperial College London and other UK universities, for research projects that I am not involved in. 
Description Corporate research partner "Jupiter" 
Organisation International Rectifier
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Jupiter is a pseudonym for a large multi-divisional multinational company. Our research agreement with them does not allow us to disclose their identity in any of our publications and does not allow any confidential qualitative or quantitative data to be shared in public repositories.
Collaborator Contribution Jupiter are a research partner, opening their doors for the conduct of interviews with their staff and the administration of an online survey targeted at senior technical managers.
Impact No outcomes yet.
Start Year 2013
Description Corporate research partner "Neptune" 
Organisation International Rectifier
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Neptune is a pseudonym for a large multi-divisional multinational company. Our research agreement with them does not allow us to disclose their identity in any of our publications and does not allow sharing of confidential qualitative or quantitative data to be shared in public repositories.
Collaborator Contribution Neptune are a research partner, opening their doors to us for the conduct of interviews with their staff and the administration of an online survey.
Impact No direct outcomes of this research yet.
Start Year 2009
Description Networks and Innovation Training Programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This intensive 3-day training programme was targeted at British and international PhD students, post-docs and early-career researchers. It provided students with the knowledge and skills needed to independently carry out network analysis applied to the field of innovation studies. The workshop focused on both network theory and offered first-hand experience of network methods.

It was held in November 2012 and September 2013, with 20 and 25 participants respectively. Both years we received more applications than we could accommodate (over 40 and over 50, respectively). The course was funded by the UK-IRC (a research centre partly funded by the ESRC). Given that falls entirely within the remit of my Future Leaders grant I also include it here.

Each training day consisted of four sessions applying network thinking to innovation studies. Theory sections provided an overview of the research questions and problems encountered by innovation scholars. This is followed by method sessions describing tools to tackle those research questions. Finally, during practical sessions participants performed analyses themselves. The first day was devoted to core network concepts and theories for innovation. The second focused on tie formation. The final day looked at network dynamics in the generation and diffusion of innovation. The exercises were carried out using the R statistical software. Methods included network descriptive statistics, network data collection and management, exponential random graph models, and dynamic models (e.g. RSiena).

In addition, three high-profile guest speakers presented a recent example of their research using network analysis. The programme held in November 2012 featured Martin Kilduff, Corey Phelps and Stefano Breschi. The 2013 programme included guest lectures from Corey Phelps and Robin Cowan.

The programme was evaluated with a score of 4.50 and 4.62 on a 5-point scale in 2012 and 2013 respectively. From the feedback forms, we understood that our programme fulfills an important unmet needs for specialized doctoral training on network analysis and network theory that individual schools do not have the scale to provide. We are strengthened in the belief that our training has helped PhD students in mastering new analytic skills and in positioning their research in the broader networks field. The two cohorts of students have come to form a community of network research practitioners that turn to each other for help and support. As course leader, I am regularly in touch with former participants about how their network research is taking shape.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012,2013
Description Organization of Imperial College London Networks Conference 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation paper presentation
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Together with Bill McEvily (whom I visited at the Rotman School of Management for three months in 2014), I organized an academic paper development workshop on social networks. The workshop was a 1.5-day event, with around 10 presentations of papers in the domain of organizational networks. Specifically, the workshop brought together papers related to the theme "Networks and formal organizational structure", an important emergent theme in the broader organizational networks literature.

The took the form of a focused workshop with around 20 invited researchers at different stages of their career (from early-career faculty to professors), mostly from Europe and several from North-America. The format involved paper presentations with assigned discussants and ample space for discussion and Q&A.

The workshop led to a focused, and in-depth discussion of some of the most recent research themes in organizational networks research. It was a prime opportunity for me and the other participants to learn about some of the most recent studies at the very forefront of this field of research. Analyses of the post-event feedback form showed very positive reactions to the quality and novelty of the presented work as well as deep appreciation for the level of the discussion throughout the workshop.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Organization of a publication bootcamp with Bill McEvily 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact I invited Prof. Bill McEvily over from Canada for the international networks paper development workshop (see other Engagement Activity) and a publication bootcamp.

Publication bootcamps are very small-scale intensive paper development sessions targeted at colleagues who have papers that are nearly ready for submission, or that recently received an R&R or rejection. The idea behind a bootcamp is that you will receive the style of feedback and guidance that you would normally get in the reviews of top management journals, before actually (re)submitting the paper. This is an opportunity to substantially improve the paper, address likely reviewer concerns, and increase its chances of getting published in a top journal.

Participation was limited to only 3 papers, not necessarily organized around a single topic (but broadly in the strategy, organization, or innovation space). The common denominator was that the paper had to target top management journals such as Org Sci, AMJ, ASQ, Man Sci, or SMJ. Since all participants had to read each other's papers, there was no need for paper presentations.

Bill McEvily led the discussion. He has extensive experience as a journal editor and reviewer. Until recently, he was senior Editor at Organization Science, a position he held for many years. He also has served as guest editor for special issues of Management Science and Organization Science. Bill's research has been published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Management Science, Organization Science, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and the Strategic Management Journal.

All three participants received detailed feedback and suggestions for how to improve their paper, which gave them the opportunity to improve their work prior to (re)submission of the paper and heigthen their chances of a positive outcome.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Professional Development Workshop on Autonomy, Creativity and Innovation, DRUID conference 2014 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation workshop facilitator
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This Professional Development workshop (invited by the conference organizers) brought together academics who recently contributed to an emerging field of research in management, around the effect of autonomy on creativity and innovation. It focused on the practical question of how firms can best balance autonomy of their workers to explore new approaches and control to make sure their efforts are aligned with the firm's needs. The workshop (see abstract below) sparked a very engaging discussion on which approaches (free time model, leisure innovation, bootlegging) work better in certain circumstances, and spurred the formulation of new research questions that members of the audience may pick up in future research.

Individual initiative plays a key role in creative processes and organizations can motivate their employees by offering them autonomy. However, organizations differ greatly in the degree of autonomy they grant to their employees to pursue their initiative. Some organizations have adopted free-time models where their staff can spend a share of their time on their own informal projects. Other organizations reap the benefits of innovations that their staff developed in their leisure time. In settings where granted autonomy is limited, individuals may wilfully seek autonomy by taking their work "underground" in the form of bootlegging projects. This PDW aims to take stock of current research around autonomy, creativity and innovation, and through discussion, define avenues for future research.

The workshop generated visibility for a publication that emerged from my research covered by the ESRC grant. The paper is on a relatively new, non-established area of research. Bringing together multiple papers around this theme, we wanted to give greater prominence to the research area and to our work within it. We hope that an event like this will encourage academic peers to contribute to this field of research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Teaching session "Entrepreneurial initiative in large organizations", European Entrepreneurship Consortium 2014, EFER European Forum for Entrepreneurship Research 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact I taught a session on "Entrepreneurial initiative in large organizations"; to an audience of 30-40 educators of entrepreneurship and start-up professionals. Despite strong links between innovation and entrepreneurship research, entrepreneurship education typically overlooks the topic of corporate entrepreneurship / entrepreneurial initiative in large organizations. My session was meant to illustrate how reflections on entrepreneurial initiative in large organizations may offer lessons for entrepreneurship education and to place small business entrepreneurship in a broader context.

The session was highly interactive. Several participants indicated to see value in comparing and contrasting entrepreneurial initiative in large organizations and "real" entrepreneurship. Although start-ups are typically more agile, it appeared from the discussion that there are certainly lessons to be drawn from the large corporation's approach to enabling cooperation for the management of entrepreneurial ventures. The content of the session was indirectly based on my work on bootlegging, published in Organization Science and resulting from research undertaken with support of the ESRC Future Leaders grant.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014