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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.

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Building Houston

 
 

A new report finds Houston a top city for business friendliness and connectivity. Photo via Getty Images

Houston, the future looks bright.

A new study from the fDi Intelligence division of the Financial Times places Houston at No. 7 among the top major cities of the future for 2021-22 across North, South, and Central America. Among major cities in the Americas, Houston appears at No. 3 for business friendliness and No. 4 for connectivity.

"Houston is known as one of the youngest, fastest-growing, and most diverse cities anywhere in the world. I am thrilled that we continue to be recognized for our thriving innovation ecosystem," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is quoted as saying in the fDi study.

Toronto leads the 2021-22 list of the top major cities in the Americas, followed by San Francisco, Montreal, Chicago, and Boston.

The rankings are based on data in five categories:

  • Economic potential
  • Business friendliness
  • Human capital and lifestyle
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Connectivity

Houston's no stranger to the list. Last year, the city ranked No. 3 on the same study, and in 2019, claimed the No. 5 spot.

"The fact that Houston consistently ranks among the top markets for foreign direct investment speaks to our region's connectivity and business-friendly environment," says Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer at the Greater Houston Partnership. "Many of the industry sectors we target for expansion and relocation in Houston are global in nature — from energy 2.0 and life sciences to aerospace and digital tech. The infrastructure and diverse workforce that make these prime growth sectors for us among domestic players are equally attractive to international companies looking to establish or strengthen ties in the Americas."

International trade is a cornerstone of the Houston area's economy. In 2020, the region recorded $129.5 billion in exports, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. China ranked as the region's top trading partner last year, followed by Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

Houston's role as a hub for foreign trade and international business "is likely to support the region's economic recovery in the months and years ahead," the partnership noted in May.

"We talk often of Houston as a great global city — one that competes with the likes of London, Tokyo, São Paulo, and Beijing. But that's only possible because of our infrastructure — namely our port — and our connections around the world," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the partnership, said last month. "Houston's ties abroad remain strong."

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