Sustainable innovation requires structured methods. But it also requires collaboration and information sharing among colleagues. Innovation is a team sport – groups produce better results than the lone genius. So how do you create a more favorable context for collaboration and sharing in your business unit?
Reputation is what matters. The degree to which a technical worker will share information with a colleague depends on that colleague's reputation for returning the favor. The rule of reciprocity states that people give back to those in the form they have received from others. It is a social rule taught by every human society to its members – you give back to those who have given to you. But the key is: to make the first move. You have to be seen as someone who gives and shares information with others, and has a reputation for returning the favor when others give to you.
Dr. Prescott Ensign and Dr. Louis Hebert investigated this phenomena by surveying more than 200 pharmaceutical scientists working in the R&D operations of 63 different companies in Canada and the U.S.. They found that technical workers often hold critical information privately without fear of sanction or consequence. What motivates them to share with others is when they see the other person as likely to give back – the other person has a well-deserved reputation for giving information back to the other person that is meaningful. The complete results and analysis of the study are described in the book Knowledge Sharing Among Scientists.
Here are the key findings (from Sloan Management Review, Winter 2010, Vol. 51 No. 2, pp 79-81):
- Past behavior by individual scientists, and the groups they belong to, influences whether knowledge is shared.
- Longer duration of interaction positively influences the flow of information.
- Quality matters more than quantity of information shared.
- Pre-existing personal and professional relationships increased the likelihood of knowledge sharing.
- Individuals who were already obliged to another person were less likely to be helped by that person that someone who was less obligated, not obligated or owed a favor.
Organizations who want to be more innovative need to do two things. First is co-location of knowledge workers and team building. Putting people in close proximity to one another and getting them to socialize will make them more likely to have the day-to-day, random encounters where they can share critical tidbits of knowledge and information. The second is training. Companies are recognizing a key gap in the skills of influence. People can be trained how to systematically and ethically influence and align their co-workers. Six universal principles of persuasion such as Reciprocity are well described by Dr. Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence: Science and Practice. Companies are conducting formal training courses in the practice of influence to make their knowledge workers more effective.
For individual innovators:
- Make the first move. Share critical information with others even if they have not given anything to you. Make sure the information is meaningful and customized to that specific individual so that they feel especially obligated to return the favor.
- When you receive information from others, reciprocate in kind. Build a reputation as a person who is willing to give back to others who give to you.
- Develop informal social relationships and networks within – and outside – your work group.
- Learn the principles of influence and how to deploy them in the workplace and increase the level of knowledge and sharing.