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Strong ties, weak ties and islands: Structural and cultural predictors of organizational innovation

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Business innovation doesn’t just come out of a void. It’s the product of innate abilities and effort, but also factors that sometimes escape analysis of even those seeking competitive advantage. One of the most cited works in the field of business innovation is a landmark 2002 paper in Industrial and Corporate Change, “Strong Ties, Weak Ties and Islands: Structural and Cultural Predictors of Organizational Innovation.”

The researcher, based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, examined innovation in more than 700 entrepreneurial teams attempting to start businesses. Particular attention was paid to the relationship between innovation and structural embeddedness, cultural embeddedness, and the team size.

The findings include:

  • The longer entrepreneurs spend in an industry, the less likely they are to introduce innovative ideas to their startups and businesses. This negative effect of time in industry on innovation is still substantial when variables such as age and past entrepreneurial experiences are taken into account.
  • Entrepreneurs who rely heavily on information from acquaintances (known as weak ties) are more likely to view themselves as innovators than those who rely on family and friends (strong ties) for information. Furthermore, individuals who use the public discourse as their primary source of information are 1.5 as likely as those who rely on strong ties, and 1.1 times likely than those who rely on weak ties, to view themselves as innovators.
  • Innovation propensity was found to increase with the size of entrepreneurial team. “When large numbers of entrepreneurs are brought together, new combinations of ideas or routines become more likely.”
  • While entrepreneurial experience may increase the likelihood of startup founders to seek legal protection for their ideas, there is no relationship between prior entrepreneurial experience and likelihood for innovation.
  • Entrepreneurs in heterogeneous networks — a mixture of strong ties, weak ties, and advisors with no prior relationship — are more likely to innovate than entrepreneurs in homogenous networks. Social networks composed of completely heterogeneous ties are three times more likely to encourage innovation than social networks with completely homogenous ties.
  • Teams composed of strong tie networks are less innovative than those with weak tie networks. Teams comprised of weak tie networks are in turn less innovative than teams whose members have no prior relationships.
  • Team members’ different tenures in industry or amount of time spent in particular industries influence innovation levels. However, having team members with backgrounds in different industries, or industry diversity, did not have an effect on innovation.

The author summarizes innovation in this way: “Capacity for creative action is seen to be a function of the ability of entrepreneurs to (i) obtain non-redundant information from their social networks; (ii) avoid pressures for conformity; and (iii) sustain trust in developing novel — and potentially profitable — innovations.”

Tags: economy, technology, entrepreneurship

    Writer: | Last updated: June 26, 2012

    Citation: Ruef, Martin. “Strong Ties, Weak Ties and Islands: Structural and Cultural Predictors of Organizational Innovation.” Industrial and Corporate Change, 2002, Vol. 11, No. 3, 427-449. doi: 10.1093/icc/11.3.427.

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    Media analysis

    Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Congress Reaches Deal to Reauthorize and Revamp Small-Business Programs."

    1. What key insights from the study and article should reporters be aware of as they cover issues relating to innovation?

    Study analysis

    Read the study titled “Strong Ties, Weak Ties and Islands: Structural and Cultural Predictors of Organizational Innovation.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?