Presented at the EngageHEI conference in Bradford University in May 2010 this paper presents an approach that uses social network theory to shape the design of a new approach to knowledge exchange tools and documents their application with 20 high tech SMES. Keywords: Social Networks, Innovation, Design Research, Strategic Design, Visualisation
Objectives: This paper addresses social network theory from the perspective of design research to propose a new conceptual approach to understanding and developing social networks. These ideas are embodied in a new strategic tool to help companies appreciate and proactively develop and exploit their social networks through visualisation.
Prior work: Social networks are receiveing increasing attention both in academic literature and in the field of policy, focusing on the structure of networks, the types of ties and the kinds of resources that are accessible through them (Granovetter, 1973; Håkansson and Snehota, 2006; Hoang and Antoncic, 2002; Jack, Rose and Johnston, 2009; Uhlaner, 2002).
Social networks are fundamental to Innovation. As innovation is increasingly seen as a systemic process that needs more than traditional collaboration mechanisms (Fagerberg, 2005; Ming-Huei Chen and Hung, 2008; Pavitt, 2005; Powell and Gordal, 2005). Concepts such as communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) and networks of innovation (Brown and Duguid, 2001) and of course Open Innovation (Chesbrough, 2003) underline the importance of the transfer of knowledge. Key to these subjects is an understanding of networking.
We have looked at networking using the approaches and perspective of design research, analysing the subject through its specific cognitive tools. One of the foundations of this approach is an engagement with visualisation in problem-solving. This is strongly supported by writers such as Rittel (1987) and Lawson (1998, 2006), and it can bring a new perspective to understanding social network theory.
Approach: In this paper, we illustrate how design-inspired cognitive tools can transform the understanding of social networks through a practical tool to foster innovation and transformation in, and between firms. This was developed through an action-research process and tested with 22 companies.
Results: We argue that entrepreneurs benefit from their network by activating the nodes that are most useful to solve a problem. Conceptually a sub-group of contacts exists that are activated at different times with different roles and to extract different resources. We call this a NET. This reflects the operational nature of the concept: nets are highly functional, they catch things. By visualising specific parts of a network while looking at a number of dimensions within this, we have successfully demonstrated a tool that helps the exploration of a wide variety of ties and their relationships to build a strategy for innovation.
Implications: The Net concept represents a tool for facilitating Open Innovation by helping entrepreneurs understand and effectively exploit their networks. This opens a new potential to understand and promote Open Innovation, theoretically and practically.
This also contributes to the highly debated field of social networks by introducing new activities and mechanisms for engagement and analysis crossing the academic/outreach divide. This is an exciting area for further investigation.
The Net approach: Social Networks in action and Design cognitive tools
Presented at the EngageHEI conference in Bradford University in May 2010