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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

 
 

Houston innovators podcast episode 140

What Houston can expect from its rising innovation district

Sam Dike of Rice Management Company joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the past, present, and future of Houston's rising Ion Innovation District. Photo via rice.edu

Last month, the Ion Houston welcomed in the greater Houston community to showcase the programs and companies operating within the Ion Innovation District — and the week-long Ion Activation Festival spotlighted just the beginning.

The rising district — anchored by the Ion — is a 16-acre project in Midtown Houston owned and operated by Rice Management Company, an organization focused on managing Rice University's $8.1 billion endowment.

"We're chiefly responsible for stewarding the university's endowment and generating returns to support the academic mission of the university," says Samuel Dike, manager of strategic initiatives at RMC, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Part of those returns go to support student scholarships and student success — as well as many of the other academic programs."

"The university sees a dual purpose behind the investing," Dike continues, in addition to focusing on generating returns, RMC's mission is "also to be a valuable partner in Houston's ecosystem and pushing Houston as a global 21st century city."

RMC saw an opportunity a few years back to make an investment in Houston's nascent innovation and tech ecosystem, and announced the plans for the Ion, a 266,000-square-foot innovation hub in an renovated and rehabilitated Sears.

"In some ways innovation is not necessarily about creating something completely new — it's oftentimes building upon something that exists and making it better," Dike says. "I think that's what we've done with the building itself.

"We took something that had really strong bones and a strong identity here in Houston," he continues, "and we did something that's often atypical in Houston and preserved and repurposed it — not an easy logistical or financial decision to make, but we believed it was the best for Houston and for the project."

Now, the Ion District includes the Ion as the anchor, as well as Greentown Houston, which moved into a 40,000-square-foot space in the former Fiesta Mart building, just down the street. While RMC has announced a few other initiatives, the next construction project to be delivered is a 1,500-space parking garage that will serve the district.

"It is not your typical parking garage," Dike says. "The garage will feature a vegetated facade with ground-floor retail and gallery space, as well as EV charging spaces and spaces to feature display spaces for future tech. It's going to be a nice addition to the district."

The new garage will free up surface parking lots that then will be freed up for future construction projects, Dike explains.

He shares more about the past, present, and future of the Ion and the district as a whole on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



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