What is innovation? One way to look at innovation, is the convergence of ideas to create a new idea. In a ‘big picture’ sort of way, innovation usually occurs through various networks of ideas that when engaged produces a new idea. Similarly, when an idea is created, the firing of neutrons (visually) looks like a web. This is a great metaphor for the formation of new ideas or information networks. It is the ebb and flow of the network that can dictate how information or growth moves. Throughout our #SaChat on innovation in Student Affairs, there was this exploration of ways we can be innovative and where innovation needs to occur. What I would like to explore, is the ‘how’ component. How do we create an environment conducive to innovation?
We can take what we know about structural predictors of organizations that encourage innovation and apply it to our offices. Through a multitude of studies a couple of trends/concepts emerge as predictors. I think a good way to reference these concepts, is in terms of strengths. Not only does it help with clarity, but it can provide a concise set of guidelines for any office. Each has the ability to balance the other out.
The strength in weak ties concept describes the connection of both influence and information networks (think Malcolm Gladwell). Weak ties are shown to allow information to travel more efficiently and information is more likely to arrive in different contexts, because they tend to bridge the gaps between distinct social groups. This encourages innovation, because the threat of conformity remains small. Think about it, if you get information from one source, you are only looking at things through one lens.
Strength of directed ties refers to a unilateral relationship between two people where the separation between influence and information has occurred. One can think of directed ties as having a mentor, without that person actually knowing. Microblogging and “tagging” have heightened the ability to create these ties and maintain them more efficiently. We all have people whom we unofficially communicate with through Twitter or by reading their blogs. We use them for information or even best practices.
Strength of network diversity is the creation of a blended network. This network can include individuals (family, friends, acquaintances, organizations) who you have had no prior contact with, yet still remain influential. When individuals have a strong diverse network, individuals tend not to become so tied to their specific role in an organization due to their broaden perspective. Because they are obtaining information and influence outside of their role, they are able to seek out information and act not solely as an academic advisor (for example), but a practitioner who can develop skills outside of student development theory and increase their professional performance.
How can an office strive to strengthen these predictors? How can these concepts be tied to simple initiatives? I believe the first step is the continual push, from the top down, towards the development of human capital in each member of an office. For this reason, I do not like the term professional development, because I believe it conjures up an idea that is too narrow- the network is not expanding (think conformity). There needs to be a push to expand employees network passed its normal boundaries. There needs to be a desire to develop new knowledge, skills and personal connections. Google has produced many of the platforms that we use today, because of this ethos. Employees are instructed to use a portion of their work day to develop ideas outside their established role (weak ties, diverse ties). Here are some items I feel warrant discussion and would have immediate impact on the strengthening of the three network ties :
1) Conferences: Are there conferences outside your specific area that may still be beneficial? It is very easy to attend your associations conference each year, but could there be others?
2) Serendipity: Can you devote time to pursuits outside your specific role?
3) Participation: Are you strictly operating within your office or area/specialty? Participating in the SA Collaborative (direct ties) has been a huge eye opener for me. I have found new perspectives, new avenues for information (weak ties) and a great community. Most of which has been outside of academic advising, but still extremely beneficial. Are there new ways your office can participate within your campus/community to gain new perspectives or connections?
4) Et cetera: While conferences can be expensive, does your office take advantage of webinars? Perhaps there is a great book that an office can read as a collective for inspiration. Do you take time to collaborate or converse about processes or how to make things better? Do you hold others accountable to pursue these goals?
Finally, we need to operate in an environment where it is okay to take risks. For offices wanting to foster innovation, the development of a culture that promotes new and uncharted ideas is a must. If you have taken the time to expand your information network and developed new skills, what are you going to do with this new knowledge? For example, embracing social media for an office might be seen as a risk. Does it have to be?
When I think of taking risks, I love this quote:
“Chance favors the connected mind” – Steven Johnson
More often than not, innovators are taking chances and operating in expanded networks. Individuals should be pushed to develop beyond their current capabilities and then act on them. Not only can it be beneficial for the individual, but beneficial to the office as a whole. To me, offices who look to develop individual’s stronger weak ties, direct ties and create a more diverse network tip the scales in their favor when taking risks.