We are social beings who come together through networks to form collectives. These collectives can be static or dynamic. What are we interested in within these networks and why?
Organisations have environmental load placed upon them that require them to become more adaptive, to innovate; whether speaking in terms of services, products or policy in the public, private or third sector. This demand brings us to look at the networks that people create, how they use them and what it potentially tells us about their capacity for innovation.
People say that network size, the number of people an individual can keep contact with, is restricted by neocortex size. This often leads to discussions of Dunbar’s number, being 148, which is often rounded up to 150 – the theory being, with a 95% confidence level, that we as humans can only maintain relationships of up to 150 people – the confidence interval actually gives us a range of 100-230. Dunbar’s research has actually been challenged by Bernard & Killworth, who propose that our capacity for network relationships is more in the 230 range, or as high as 290.
So, we potentially have a large network of people to interact with. However, within that network it is suggested that there will bestrong-ties weak-ties and directed-ties. Bear with me here. Generally speaking, at the core of your network will be a group of up to 12 strong ties – beyond this the group becomes more conflicted and tends to fracture and form sub-groups. This core group will usually have a focal point, an expert perhaps, who acts as the strong connector. Outside of this we have varying degrees of acquaintance, or weak ties; being stronger the closer they are to the strong-ties and weakening as they move away from the centre – there tends to be a common social element here that exists as a ‘golden thread’ throughout the network. Then you have directed-ties; these are relationships that exists in relative isolation, islands if you will, existing with limited interaction and without the need to conform to the common social elements that exist with varying degrees of intensity throughout the network. Ties between strong-tie clusters in networks are usually facilitated through weak links through commonality of need, demand or purpose.
The argument is that we often get drawn into the value of the strong-ties, when the real value, when it comes to developing our own dynamic capability, is in our weak-ties or directed-ties. The argument for this? To innovate there is a need for the individual to become more dynamic, which, you could argue, requires access to disparate ideas through a flow of heterogeneous information. I would argue that there is more to this than becoming personally reflective and exploring the periphery of our network relationships. I would argue that the way we focus our attention, and our subsequent ability to innovate, is actually based within our cognitive style. The help distinguish the two, the following is taken from Wyss (2002); though, I have to say, the best book in this area is ‘The Adult Learner’.
|1. Impersonal orientation
i.e. reliance on internal frame of reference in processing information
|1. Personal orientation
i.e. reliance on external frame of reference in processing information
i.e. perceives a field in terms of its component parts; parts are distinguished from background
i.e. perceives field as a whole; parts are fused with background
i.e. sense of separate identity
i.e. the self view is derived from others
|4. Socially sensitive
i.e. greater skill in interpersonal/social relationships
|4. Not so socially aware
i.e. less skilled in interpersonal/social relationships
Now, strong-ties are built around homogenous bonds. There is a focus on conformity, reciprocal relationships, reproduction of the norm, high levels of intimacy, low levels of abstractness, established ways of thinking and there are usually links to status. Weak-ties, to a varying extent, and directed-ties, to more of an extent, are more heterogeneous, have significantly lower levels of intimacy, operate with higher levels of abstractness, appear to encourage deviation from the norm, experimentation and are not dependent on role based actors. I would argue that a field-independent individuals are more likely to explore the fringes of the social network, to dabble with islands, or to operate more as an independent loner. I would also argue that field dependent individuals are more likely to gravitate towards the norm, to be more interested in reproduction with minimal deviation from what is already known.
Reinforcing this view is the way in which individuals access information and the type of information available to them. I would argue that field dependent individuals, focused on role-based, strong-tie, relationships are subjecting themselves to a form of variety attenuation that lowers abstractness and reinforces the norm. I would also argue that this also links to critical thinking capacity and, as such, reinforces the variety attenuation process. Information is often acquired through the social process and, as such, is often slower than other forms of information acquisition and can become tainted through the a social process that limits the capacity for deviation from the accepted norm. On the other hand, field independent individuals have a greater capability for dealing with abstractness, have more of a capacity for critical thinking and are more likely to obtain their information from media sources, as opposed to relying on social diffusion.
Bringing this blog back to the question in the title, the point of reflection is whether the field independent loner, with a limited social network, a more innovative individual than a field dependent individual with a vast social network? What does this mean for an organisation?
It would seem that an awareness of cognitive styles is important within the decision-making process when it comes to understanding the capability and capacity for innovation, especially within knowledge intensive organisations. After all, according to industry reports, such as The Economist 2020 Foresight Report, problem-solving and relationship building are two of the most vital skills needed by organisations today.