Evergreen Insight

Ties that generate knowledge

This section, to mark 50 years since the founding of SDA Bocconi, presents a selection of the ideas advanced by faculty members representing seminal work in management research: relevance, concreteness, scientific rigor, and impact on the community are the four pillars underpinning the path proposed here. The SDA Insight initiative is part of the broader project, “50 Years of Ideas.”

Informal ties exist and intersect in all organizations, connecting people and giving rise to networks spanning both various organizational units as well as the very boundaries of individual organizations. These networks (potentially) represent a channel for conveying information and knowledge.

Yet knowledge sharing is a challenge for people, especially when they work in different places inside an organization. For this reason, bridges need to be built between individuals or areas in the company to reduce the distances between different business units. But when the knowledge that people need to share is extremely complex, this solution may not be enough.

This situation calls for a more structured bridge that makes it possible to triangulate knowledge among people located in different parts of the organization. This is usually called a “Simmelian bridge,” and consists of multiple relationships inside and outside a given work environment that enables people to share a specific knowledge set among all the interested parties.

In the paper Activating Cross-Boundary Knowledge: The Role of Simmelian Ties in the Generation of Innovations, which I wrote with David Krackhardt and published in 2010 in the Academy of Management Journal, we analyzed the conditions that make ties spanning organizational boundaries conducive to generating innovations.

Our study was based on a sample of 276 scientists and engineers working at major multinational semiconductor manufacturer in the R&D division, which was organized in 16 different labs. What we found was that the advantages depend on the nature of the ties underpinning the bridges between the people in question. The unique feature of this particular R&D division of the company in our sample was that the people in a single lab were usually assigned to different development projects, and each project normally involved people spread out across several different labs. The resulting networks were highly transversal, both geographically and organizationally. Under these conditions, knowledge sharing became a critical factor in the success of the company’s projects. What also emerged from our study was that the most prolific inventors are the ones who could count on Simmelian bridges, which served as conduits for sharing complex knowledge with several individuals located in various labs all over the world. The typical triad structures of these ties tend to facilitate conflict resolution, which leads to greater stability, the development of shared meanings and perspectives, and a greater inclination to cooperate and share knowledge.

Our research is particularly relevant because it suggests a practical method for managing and integrating different knowledge. In fact, the paradox of innovation lies in the fact that new ideas, the ones that revolutionize the market, stem from the of integration distinct sets of knowledge that take shape in different contexts. But although “knowledge diversity” is a crucial aspect of innovation generation, on the flipside, this same diversity often throws up serious obstacles to sharing and understanding this essential knowledge. Put another way, knowledge diversity drives innovation, but hampers sharing and understanding. Structures for informal interaction, instead, make it possible to triangulate and integrate input from different sources, and this integration is facilitated by the social mechanisms that Simmel observed and described over a century ago.

An issue that will become very pressing in the coming months is how the pandemic will impact the dissemination and creation of knowledge in organizations. What effect on innovation will come out of the forced social segregation that happened because of the lockdowns? And in a professional context, what repercussions will smart working have on the ability of organizations to innovate? We don’t have the answers to these questions yet. Some tasks can be handled remotely with no problem at all; there’s no need for physical proximity. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the ability to innovate. The loss of innovative potential could be yet another aspect of the aftermath of the pandemic. Nonetheless, the ability of social systems to re-form and adapt is such that these negative effects could be short lived, and may not have any structural ramifications on organizations who make innovation their competitive advantage.