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Rice University research finds that office socializing can be a pathway to innovation and creativity

This Halloween, consider your office costume contest or luncheon social a productive part of the day. Socialization in the office has been linked to greater creativity, according to a Rice University researcher. Getty Images

Innovation is a team sport. We know that creative workplaces represent a series of social networks, each brimming with useful ideas and expertise. And there is clearly a link between innovation within a firm and the colleagues and friends with whom employees hobnob off duty.

But how exactly does that alchemy happen? What's the relationship between creativity and the hive of direct and indirect contacts in an employee's cell phone?

A recent study by Jing Zhou of the business school, Giles Hirst of Australian National University, Daan Van Knippenberg of Erasmus University, Eric Quintane of the University of Los Andes and Cherrie Zhu of Monash University sheds new light on this. Mapping the social networks that underlie a creative workplace, the researchers showed that employee creativity rises when social networks are more diverse.

The researchers started with the premise that direct links in a network are offshoots of larger networks. The more diverse these indirect networks are, the researchers found, the more likely that innovative concepts will appear in a company's intellectual landscape.

The most efficient resources for gathering novel perspectives are networks made up of two-step "non-redundant ties"—that is, people you may not interact with directly, but with whom your direct ties do interact. These contacts are effectively the raw material employees use to come up with new ideas and ways of working. But why are these indirect networks so important? They diversify the thinking of the group, Zhou and her colleagues argue. Because these networks include individuals who are not necessarily linked, they lower the chances of groupthink or stale ideas.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers looked at the social networks of a large, state-owned pharmacy corporation in the People's Republic of China. Examining 11 divisions, each with roughly 25 sales representatives, the team studied creativity among the sales representatives. Evenly divided between men and women, the representatives were, on average, 35 years of age with approximately 10 years' of experience. Some had developed networks so large that they reached beyond the corporation's geographic territory.

The representatives' creativity manifested itself in a range of forms: new ways to promote products, strategies to cross-sell products, ideas for connecting with hard-to-access sales targets and plans for boosting client sales. The ideas included making products more visible in retail outlets and personalizing product launches to push customers to specific distributors. Because this kind of inventiveness is critical to gaining an edge, it's one of the most important tools in pharmaceutical marketing.

The researchers devised a matrix that matched sales metrics and managers' creativity rankings to the types of social networks the representatives had. The map showed clearly that a two-step, indirect network with few redundancies correlated to individual creativity. When networks were further removed than this, employee creativity was unchanged.

The implication: Firms should attend closely to the kind of social networks their workers cultivate. Not only that, it's possible to teach employees how to design networks for maximum efficiency. Persuading employees to make that effort might be another matter. Luckily, possible incentives abound, from bonuses to the satisfactions of a varied network to the simple pleasure of a more ample expense account. Executives just need to get creative in making their case.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Jing Zhou is the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University.

What's the latest in tech research in Houston? Here are three revolutionary research projects happening right under our noses. Getty Images

Tons of research happens daily at various Houston institutions — from life-saving medical developments to high tech innovations that will affect the greater business community.

In this Houston research roundup, three research projects from three Houston organizations are set to revolutionize their respective industries.

University of Houston researcher explores potential disruption in blockchain

blockchain

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A huge technology question mark within business has been blockchain — how it'll affect the sharing of information and industry as a whole. But, one University of Houston professor and his Texas A&M University colleagues are looking into that potential disruption in a recent paper.

"It's an emerging technology. It's evolving," says Weidong "Larry" Shi, associate professor of computer science at UH, in a UH news release.

Funded by the Borders, Trade, and Immigration Institute, the research has developed into the paper, which was published in the International Journal of Production Research.

A key focus of the research is how blockchain will affect cargo entering the United States, and identifies six pain points within adapting blockchain for cargo management: traceability, dispute resolution, cargo integrity and security, supply chain digitalization, compliance, and trust and stakeholder management, according to the release.

"The wide adoption of blockchain technology in the global SC (supply chain) market is still in its infancy," the article reads. "Industry experts project that on average, it may take about six years for the widespread adoption of blockchain."

Blockchain has the potential to prevent fraud within the global supply chain, among other things.

"The data can't be changed. Everyone (along the supply chain) has a copy. You can add information, but you can't change it," Shi says in the release.

The U.S. Army taps Rice University for network research

Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University and the U.S. Army have joined forces for a five-year, $30 million research agreement to modernize the Army — specifically for developing next-generation wireless networks and radio frequency (RF) electronics.

"[The Army Research Laboratory] and Rice will match the right people and capabilities to meet specific challenges, and the cooperative agreement is structured to allow the Army to partner widely across our campus," says Yousif Shamoo, Rice's vice president of research and lead on the ARL partnership, in a recent news release. "One exciting aspect of this partnership is the broader societal benefits. The technologies we're starting with are needed for Army modernization and they could also benefit millions of Americans in communities that still lack high-speed internet."

Without going into too much detail, the two entities are working to advance the Army's existing infrastructure to create networks that can sense attacks and protect themselves by adaption or stealth. The technology has the potential to affect the Army as well as civilians, says Heidi Maupin, the lead ARL contact for the Rice partnership.

"We want to deliver the capability of quickly deploying secure, robust Army communications networks wherever and whenever they're needed," Maupin says in the release. "The technology needed for that will benefit the world by transforming the economics of rural broadband, reducing response times to natural disasters, opening new opportunities for online education and more."

Research out of Baylor College of Medicine advancing information known about vision

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For humans, seeing is pretty simple — just open your eyes. But the process our eyes go through extremely complex, and scientists have had a hard time recreating the process — until now.

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the University of Tübingen in Germany have developed a novel computational approach that accelerates the brain's ability to identify optimal stimuli. The complete study by the scientists was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

"We want to understand how vision works," says senior author Dr. Andreas Tolias, professor and Brown Foundation Endowed Chair of Neuroscience at Baylor. "We approached this study by developing an artificial neural network that predicts the neural activity produced when an animal looks at images. If we can build such an avatar of the visual system, we can perform essentially unlimited experiments on it. Then we can go back and test in real brains with a method we named 'inception loops."

To track neurons and how they work, the researchers tracked brain activity scanning thousands of images.

"Experimenting with these networks revealed some aspects of vision we didn't expect," says Tolias, founder and director of the Center for Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence at Baylor, in a release. "For instance, we found that the optimal stimulus for some neurons in the early stages of processing in the neocortex were checkerboards, or sharp corners as opposed to simple edges which is what we would have expected according to the current dogma in the field."

The research is ongoing and will only continue to help dissect how the brain sees and interprets visual elements.