The strength of strong ties in the creation of innovation

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Authors: K. Rost

Publication Year: 2011


Journal: Research Policy

Categories: Innovation, Ecology


There is an ongoing debate in innovation research as to which type of social capital is more conducive to innovation: structural holes as proposed by Burt or network closure as proposed by Coleman. Although Coleman focused on the quality of relationships, Burt argued that the structural configuration of relationships was more important. I argue that, instead of being alternative substitutes, Burt's social capital theory complements Coleman's theory. More precisely, I demonstrate that, in the presence of strongties, weak network architectures (structural holes or a peripheral network position) leverage the strength of strongties in the creation of innovation. This implies that weak network architectures have no value without strongties, whereas strongties have some value without weak network architectures but are leveraged by this type of structure. The findings indicate that innovation research tends to overestimate the impact of weak network architectures in the creation of innovation. By pointing to the necessity of strongties, the results may be of particular interest for research on open innovation. They suggest that open innovation will not work if closed innovation principles are pushed back.

Critical Reflection

As demonstrated by the adaptive cycle every organization has to change what their doing at some point, which can be caused by both internal and external factors. Innovation can be the cause of this. This article demonstrates how organizations can benefit from 'flocking together' and benefit and enhance that innovation. The regular reasons for getting together (knowledge spill-over, using existing distribution channels, access to skilled labor - usually strong ties) are even more enhanced when there are weak ties available. This can lead to completely new insight and can cause new combinations. Although the article illustrates this very well, I find that the method used might not be proper for generalisation. The research was entirely focussed on German car manufacturers and only looked at the number of patents used as an indicator of innovation. A large portion of our economy is service based, which are totally excluded by focussing on manufacturing companies. Moreover, the number of patents is not a very good indicator if it were used for other industries. For instance, in almost all service industries there are no patents, yet there is innovation. All in all I think that this article nicely illustrates how weak ties can be very important when used with strong ties and provides an insight into how companies can overcome a crisis.