How Networking Fosters Innovation

-by Giovanni Zazzerini

When thinking about innovation, we often tend to imagine a lone inventor, working away in their study, until finally, in an “Eureka!” moment, they have a realisation that will revolutionise a certain field. While this image may be poetically inspiring, in reality, taking a good idea forward relies on a variety of different inputs from different people and perspectives. In fact, any technological breakthrough relies on many different competencies and on the connection with many different players; creating links with these external actors, developing and maintaining increasingly wide networks, approaching consumers to learn their needs, working with suppliers to achieve innovative solutions, sharing information with research centres becomes increasingly crucial. In today’s society, the key requirement for innovation is the successful constitution and management of a functioning network, where the focus is not on knowledge creation but on knowledge flows.

Innovation networks are of paramount importance, as they have what are called emergent properties – properties of complex systems, which give the whole the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts. Innovation networks, in fact, do not only provide collective knowledge efficiency, but also the possibility to access different knowledge sets, reducing risks, accessing new markets and technologies, and otherwise pooling complementary skills and assets. Without this variety of players, it would be nearly impossible for our lone inventor to bring their idea successfully to the market: innovation is not a solo act, but a multiplayer game.

Innovation can be visualised as a linear core process with a defined structure: R&D – Manufacturing – Marketing. This visualisation, however, is only a simplification. In reality, knowledge flows around an innovation project are not linear, they more intricate, complex and interactive. This type of interaction is known as the Spaghetti Model of Innovation[1].

The emphasis on networking finds theoretical basis on the Open Innovation concept, first developed by Henry Chesbrough[2]. It refers to an approach which seeks to mobilize innovation sources both inside and outside the enterprise. The logic being that firms should open up their innovation processes, searching outside their boundaries and investing in a wide set of network connections, focusing primarily on improving the so-called knowledge flows in and out of the organisation. Several major firms such as P&G or 3M have embraced this approach, proving its effectiveness.

Networks can help entrepreneurs and innovators in a number of different ways:

  • Sharing knowledge and ideas: a large part of the innovation process involves configuring and adapting ideas developed elsewhere.
  • Sharing resources: the strive for innovation involves taking considerable risks and investing the often-limited resources available on projects that do not guarantee a positive outcome. This issue is particularly relevant when considering smaller businesses, which undoubtedly have significant advantages in terms of focus, energy, and fast decision-making, but they often lack the necessary resources to achieve their full potential. This is one of the main reasons for the importance of spatial clusters. These are networks which form because of the players’ geographical proximity, and which allow the members to benefit from said proximity by spreading the risks involved in the innovation process.
  • Support networks: businesses, especially smaller ones, look for assistance and mentoring in the early stages of their life. This necessity is provided by support networks such as incubators and accelerators. The support needed varies depending on the phase the start-up is currently in: in the conceptualisation phase, start-ups need soft benefits (credibility, legitimacy, motivation); once grown, they need hard benefits (lead to customers, investors, markets or technical knowledge).
  • Learning networks: these are needed for the primary purpose of increasing knowledge and to develop a firm’s absorptive capacity, which is a firm’s ability to recognize the value of new information, assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends, thus building a capacity for innovation. By exposing the firm to different perspectives, they help open new lines of inquiry and help prevent the so-called “not invented here” syndrome.
  • User networks: innovation is not only about technology – a key element to innovation’s success is the knowledge of user needs. User networks are a valid means for firms to acquire this knowledge from consumers. Users can also contribute to the innovation process participating in the co-development of products and services or in crowdsourcing.

In conclusion, it is clear that networking is crucial for innovation. Organisations and innovators need to focus energies and resources on developing networking skills and greatly mobilise knowledge flows, in order reap the benefits of their emergent properties and to play this evermore competitive multiplayer game.



[1] Bessant J. R. and Tidd J., 2007, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, John Wiley & Sons Inc

[2] Chesbrough H., 2003, Open Innovation, Harvard Business Press

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