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Managing Innovation in Small Worlds

Innovation is typically a group effort, but how exactly do researchers collaborate with one another to innovate? To answer this question, the authors compiled a dataset identifying all co-authorship relationships of U.S. patent inventors from 1975 through 1999.

That dataset revealed that the social network of innovators is a "small world," with various clusters of people interconnected by different "gatekeepers," individuals who bridge one group with another. Historically, engineers and scientists tended to work within local clusters of collaboration that were isolated within a company. Recently, though, people have become increasingly mobile, changing jobs with greater frequency, and these formerly isolated clusters have begun to interconnect into larger networks through which information flows more freely between companies. Such environments provide both strategic opportunity and potential threat: They can increase creativity within a company, but they also aid in the diffusion of creative knowledge to other firms through personnel and knowledge transfer. The trick, then, is to manage innovation in ways that exploit the opportunities while minimizing the risks.
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