In the past decade, the word “friend” became a verb, the word “like” became a noun, and “tweet” became more than a birdsong. Social technology–originally designed for communication between college co-eds–has since brought down governments in Egypt and Tunisia. Thomas Payne would have been proud.
We are outrageously connected. Today, the average American has roughly 600 online and offline relationships (ironically, our number of “close friends” has remained relatively unchanged at 2.16. And yes, the 0.16 is the one who still owes you money.)
As a result of our hyper-connectivity, we are fast-moving from what management scholar Peter Drucker called the knowledge economy to a social economy. The line is quickly blurring between the value of what we know and who we know. This then begs the question: which is more important? Is it more valuable to have the answer? Or is it more valuable to know who has the answer?
In an academic environment we call the latter cheating. But in the corporate world, does it really matter if you know the answer to the problem, or is it more important that you can find out who does? In very practical terms, consider the impact of our social economy on recruiting new employees and professional development. Given a choice of hiring an expert with a high IQ or a generalist with a high Klout score (a measure of social influence), whom do you hire? Or does it depend upon the task? In sales and marketing roles, the extent of one’s personal and professional network along with his or her influence score should be considered. Shouldn’t it?
What is the right balance between intelligence and social connectivity? From an innovation perspective, this difference is very significant. In fact, it can mean the difference between success and failure.
Consider one of the most famous innovation battles: Tesla vs. Edison.
Nikola Tesla, the multi-talented engineer and father of Alternating Current (AC), was–no doubt–a genius. His knowledge in electrical and mechanical engineering led to a series of inventions that had impacts on radio communication, X-ray technology, and even attempts at intercontinental wireless transmission (his famed Wardenclyffe Tower). Yet, although he beat Edison in setting the electrical standard, he was a recluse and ultimately lived his finals days in room 3327 at the New Yorker Hotel where died in poverty in 1943.
On the other hand, we have his nemesis–Thomas Edison. Edison, whose Direct Current (DC) lost out to Tesla’s technology, led a fruitful life and died a wealthy man. What was the difference between Tesla and Edison?
While there are many, perhaps the most notable difference when it comes to innovation was the nature of their social networks. Tesla had essentially one productive relationship: George Westinghouse (who licensed and commercialized Tesla’s technologies). Edison, on the other hand, was famously well connected. Edison understood the power of social networking long before it became a pick-up tool for college co-eds. Among Edison’s network were automotive pioneer Henry Ford, tire innovator Harvey Firestone, naturalist and essayist John Burroughs, Bishop William Anderson, and–for good measure–the then sitting President of the United States, Warring G. Harding. Known famously as the Vagabonds, in 1918, this creative crew even went camping together in the Smokey Mountains (in Ford’s cars using Firestone’s tires of course).
While Tesla invented in isolation, Edison created out loud. He understood the value of a social network. And while Edison’s original patent application for the electric light bulb was rejected, he acquired and licensed technologies and attracted the best and brightest engineers to join him in the commercialization of his electrical lighting system.
This difference between innovating privately and innovating out loud is one of the most significant differentiators between successful innovators and those that fail. It largely explains the success of new venture accelerators, corporate new venture groups, and even academic researchers. Those with the most robust, engaged, and diverse social networks win. For example, I am a Limited Partner at the new venture accelerator Excelerate Labs in Chicago. Each summer summer, our ten portfolio companies are connected to and coached by over 150 mentors. Imagine not only the sparks of insight that are encouraged, but imagine the connections that are made. Success only happens to those who innovate out loud. Your idea is worthless if no one cares about it, but it’s worth even less if no one knows about it.
Herein lies the fundamental–and often misunderstood–difference between creativity and innovation. Creativity is how you think. Innovation is how you act. In academic circles, cognitive scientists study creativity. Social scientists study innovation. Of course, creativity and innovation are intrinsically connected. However, while most innovators are also creative not all creators are often innovative. Creative people–artists, designers, and inventors–frequently lack the social and political skills required to make their ideas commercially viable. And so they fail.
Organizations suffer the same fate. Those organizations that encourage innovation among their employees yet do not provide the channels of distribution–both internally and externally–for those ideas to be socialized within the company and within the market, often do nothing more than create great expectations and equally great frustration among employees. In order to succeed, we must teach individual employees how to be innovators as much as creators. Thinking differently is only half the battle. Acting differently (notably, learning how to socialize new ideas) can be the difference between success and failure. One of the greatest opportunities to improve talent development is in helping employees learn how to create internal and external coalitions for their creative ideas. Building political equity and market acceptance of an idea is not a skill explicitly taught in school, yet it is perhaps the most fundamental skill that will be required for organizations to succeed in the future.
This shift FROM a knowledge economy TO a social economy raises a number of questions for you to consider with your team:
- How do you currently evaluate and place prospective employees?
- Do you consider the social influence of new talent in your recruiting process?
- Do you have a process for evaluating which types of projects should be managed collaboratively (socially) versus individually?
- Where appropriate, how do you encourage and foster social networking across your organization?
- How do you encourage and foster external collaboration outside of your company and across sectors of industry?
- What incentives and performance management systems do you have in place to encourage “creative teaming” vs. “functional innovation”?
- What are you doing to help your leaders understand their role in transitioning from a knowledge economy to a social economy?
Andrew Razeghi is a Lecturer at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a popular speaker on innovation and growth. Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewrazeghi.