Innovation is a network activity

In business, attention is paid to innovative individuals, especially those who go on to become captains of industry. But of more importance is the ability of the network (society, organization, company) to stay connected to its collective knowledge in order to keep innovating. Just think how quickly an organization would lose its collective knowledge if people did not share their knowledge. What about an entire society?

You start out with two genetically well-intermixed peoples. Tasmania’s actually connected to mainland Australia so it’s just a peninsula. Then about 10,000 years ago, the environment changes, it gets warmer and the Bass Strait floods, so this cuts off Tasmania from the rest of Australia, and it’s at that point that they begin to have this technological downturn. You can show that this is the kind of thing you’d expect if societies are like brains in the sense that they store information as a group and that when someone learns, they’re learning from the most successful member, and that information is being passed from different communities, and the larger the population, the more different minds you have working on the problem.

If your number of minds working on the problem gets small enough, you can actually begin to lose information. There’s a steady state level of information that depends on the size of your population and the interconnectedness. It also depends on the innovativeness of your individuals, but that has a relatively small effect compared to the effect of being well interconnected and having a large population. —How Culture Drove Human Evolution

long-isthmusIs your organization more like an isolated island or part of a connected and diverse continent? Are your knowledge networks large and diverse enough to ensure that collective knowledge does not get lost? These are serious questions to ask at another time of rising sea levels.

Innovation is not brilliant flashes of individual insight but collective learning through social networks. No networks, no learning.

In an effort to understand what drives the accumulation of cultural information, his colleague Hannah Lewis developed a mathematical model that can simulate how new cultural traits – technological inventions, traditions, or knowledge – arise and disappear over generations. With this model, [Kevin] Laland and Lewis plugged in various forms of innovation (inventing something outright, or modifying or combining existing inventions), as well as trait loss – losing knowledge through inaccurate transmission of information. They ran these simulations through 5,000 cycles, looking to see which factor had the biggest impact on the final richness and diversity of traits.

Accurate transmission of information had a massive impact on the outcome: with this model, increasing the fidelity of cultural transmission just a bit yielded huge increases in the amount and variety of culture. ‘It doesn’t matter how much novel invention or refinement is going on: if you don’t have accurate transmission you simply cannot build up culture,’ says Laland. ‘It was a real insight.’ —Imitation is what makes us human & creative

Imitation is how we learn as a species. This is social learning, best explained by Albert Bandura, recognized as the most eminent psychologist of the modern era.

“Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.” —Albert Bandura

If we want to innovate we need to work on the structures and systems that promote imitation — open access to information, wide distribution of knowledge, and easy copying. The focus of innovation has to be on we, not me. If we can make our knowledge-sharing networks stronger, then human nature can take care of the rest.

3 Responses to “Innovation is a network activity”

  1. François Lavallée

    Recent research on brain cells show that when enough connections occurs between neurones something wonderful seems to materialize. Some scientist call this “conscientiousness”.
    Any metabolic fonction is based on numerous , and partly random, contacts between regulatory proteins, metabolites and the genes. These interactions are the key to life.
    Similarly , in any organization, interactions between individuals is key to
    the transmission of information
    innovation , as described above in this great article
    and ultimately the survival of the organization.
    Wirearchy, as Jon Husband would say.
    Why then do we still have silos, departmental wars, territorial argument and isolated budgets?
    Ego? Hubris?…pfffff…

    Thanks for this insight Harold.


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