Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Innovation, cross-appropriation, social practice, and structural holes

There are some who believe that innovation is driven by the genius of a creative individual. I prefer a more sociological approach, where innovation comes from individuals working together in groups. Not just any random group produces innovation, though. I like the interview with Ronald Burt in Rotman Magazine1, although I have to perform some academic hair-splitting to reconcile with his language. Burt sees the value of innovation beyond the discovery.

SW: You have said that creativity is an import-export game, not a creation game. If the most original and effective ideas are more often borrowed than created, how can companies foster innovation?

RB: We all specialize, for reasons of efficiency and productivity, and are often blind to good ideas that occur in other places. When someone brings us a good idea, it’s typically something that person has seen elsewhere. But we don’t think about where that person has gone to find the idea; instead we think, “My goodness, what a brilliant person!” Value is created by translating an idea discovered else where into the local jargon, so that it’s easy to digest. And in that translation is the act of creativity. [pp. 78-79]

This elsewhere idea is consistent with the Innovation Happens Elsewhere view described by Ron Goldman and Richard Gabriel2. I wouldn’t express the translation as creativity, but instead as cross-appropriation, in the sense of Disclosing New Worlds, by Spinosa, Flores and Dreyfus3.

Burt continues, shifting the orientation of value from the provider, to the recipient.

Because of patent law, which exists to protect intellectual capital, we often think the value of an idea lies in its creation. Yet the value of an idea lies in the audience, not its source, and one idea can be ‘created’ many, many times. Creativity exists in a chain: an idea comes from this group and goes to that group, and that group then carries it over to another group. An idea is a multiple sequence of creative acts. This is important because it means that creativity isn’t just the domain of brilliant people, it’s also the domain of average people who travel to other groups. [p. 79]

These ideas on value parallel the views of social theorist Pierre Bourdieu4 in two ways. Firstly, value in the audience is similar to Bourdieu’s view on social capital. Secondly, the chain or sequence isn’t just an idea (in the cognitive sense), but instead a reproduction of social practice, in the form of a changed predisposition towards action.

Burt continues with the practical application of these ideas through the management of groups (i.e. organizational design) and integration of diversity (i.e. variety).

An organization can promote creativity by facilitating different ways of seeing things. Jean-Rene Fourtou, while he was CEO of the chemical firm Rhone-Poulenc, was once asked, “Why is it that your chemists come up with so many leading ideas?” His reply was brilliant: “I manage le vide” – the emptiness. That is, he manages groups, keeps them apart, then brings them back together after they’ve developed different ideas. Jack Welch referred to this notion as ‘integrative diversity’: maintaining our diversity, our segregated silos, but then creating value from judicious integration. New ideas are borne when we confront contradiction. This is a concept that is easily grasped but harder to implement. Usually we manage for the efficiency of tight coordination. [p. 79]

The ideas of integration and separation are well developed in the systems sciences, in Tim Allen‘s definitions for complexification and complication5. The idea of variety goes back to early cybernetics research by Ross Ashby.

I’m a bit surprised at Burt’s use of the word “creativity”, because he’s well known for his research into structural holes.

RB: People often think of advantage in networks in terms of being connected to powerful people. But when it comes to creating value, the advantage lies with people who are connected to those who aren’t themselves connected. These disconnects –- between people not already talking to one another or coordinating with one another –- are called holes in the social structure of information flow. More simply, they’re called structural holes. And your value in a network depends on your access to structural holes.

If everyone you know knows one other, you have no social capital, because you’re not in a position to create new connections. Holes are in fact essential to the division of labour.

According to the division of labour, we each specialize in our particular field, and thereby ignore a lot of activity, which greatly simplifies life in the network. Yet at the same time that these disconnects are useful for efficiency, they blind us to new opportunities, which is where brokerage becomes valuable.

The people who connect across knowledge gaps have a competitive advantage, because they see fresh combinations and alternative ways of doing business. [p. 78, editorial paragraphing added]

In this description, the idea of creativity doesn’t enter, and it’s all about social interaction. To me, it’s the structural holes that provide paths (or obstructions) to innovation.


1Stephen Watt, “Questions for: Ronald Burt”, Rotman Magazine, Winter 2007, pp. 78-79.

2Ron Goldman and Richard P. Gabriel, Innovation Happens Elsewhere, Morgan-Kaufmann Publishers, 2005; also available at under a Commons License.

3Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores & Hubert L. Dreyfus, Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action and the Cultivation of Solidarity, MIT Press, 1997.

4Bourdieu has a reputation as a difficult read, so perhaps the following reference is better: Moishe Postone, Edward LiPuma, and Craig Calhoun, “Introduction: Bourdieu and Social Theory”, in Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives, Craig Calhoun, Edward LiPuma and Moishe Postone (editors), Polity Press, 1993, pp. 1-13.

5T. F. H. Allen, Joseph A. Tainter and T. W. Hoekstra, “Supply-Side Sustainability”, Systems Research and Behavioral Science, Volume 16, Number 5, September – October 1999, pp. 403-427.

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