HBS Working Knowledge has an interview with HBS associate professor Lee Fleming whose work “looks specifically at how ideas and innovation flow across company boundaries through small (and getting smaller) communities and collaborations of inventors.” Excerpts:
In layman’s terms, the best way to think about a small-world network is that there are local clusters, much like caves. Within these caves you have a small clan of people tightly connected together, with strong relationships between each other. But a couple of members in each caveif you have a collection of caves within reach of each otherknow other members of other caves, and it’s this combination of a tight, local clustering with an occasional weak, distant tie to other clusters, that is the essence of a small world. Some argue that clustering is good for innovation, but since clusters get stale, you also need the non-redundant information that flows in from outside the local cluster. Hence, the advantage of small worlds is that they combine tight local clustering with distant ties.
Our work and more recent work on knowledge diffusion demonstrates that knowledge flows along collaborative relationships, even years after they were formed. For managers the critical message here is, the world of inventors is getting “smaller” in the sense that inventors are more connected to their colleagues in outside firms, and that knowledge is diffusing in both directions. So with regard to agglomeration and connection, the world of inventors is indeed shrinking and becoming a “smaller world.”