The Social Origins of Good Ideas Pt Two

This is the second part of a post on a 2003 paper by Ronald S. Burt.

Silo Mentality

The paper identifies a number of issues and behaviours which contribute to and reinforce what is commonly known as a silo mentality, this time in the pejorative sense :). These are:

  • Managers who are part of dense, closed networks were more likely to have their ideas dismissed or seen as low value, so have learned not to express ideas. They then withdraw into the closed group to wait for orders, thus continuing the isolation of the group.
  • Groups controlled by task focussed senior leaders are less likely to develop ideas through brokerage even if the organisation incentivises and rewards this. Here is an example quote from the study:

“I don’t want my people even thinking about alternatives. They spend two weeks thinking about an alternative, only to learn what we have is 90% as good. The result is that they wasted two weeks and I’m behind schedule. I get some complaints about stifling creativity, but all I want is to be good enough and on schedule.”

  • If this kind of attitude is then reinforced by a high degree of value being placed on personal loyalty, then it is easy to imagine an organisation riddled with silos.
  • Social convenience is a large factor in determining who a manager discusses ideas with, even among both local and enterprise brokers, so if ideas are taken up, they spread in a way that continues segregation between groups.

Impact on Performance and Reward

There is not much to add to Burt’s summary finding:

“… the company rewarded managers for building relations across structural holes in the organization. Brokerage is linked with promotion, positive job evaluations, and high salary relative to peers.”

Get brokering people!

Informal Bosses

The majority (69%) of managers excluded their boss from the discussion they had around their idea. This reinforces the concept of networks, and not hierarchies being how work gets done in organisations (Bryan et al, 2007). Instead managers sought out the most central person of higher rank in their network – who Burt refers to as the “informal boss”.


Burt acknowledges two issues with the research. The first is one of methodology – he only knew about the people with whom managers had their most detailed discussions about their idea and not ALL the people they contacted.

The second is a less a criticism, more just a reflection of the difference between ideas and action. On revisiting the company he found that of the 100 top ideas, only 16 were being worked on. Of course this may just be a reflection of resource constraint. Not surprisingly, the factors which lead to those 16 being perceived as being good, also related to their chances of being selected for resource.

My own criticism of the research would be that Burt always takes the view that social networks lead to good ideas, when this could be a chicken or egg situation, that is good ideas give an individual the ability to create extensive bridges and extend their networks. This often seems to be the case in the media where powerful ideas will open many doors, sometimes even for those with little relevant network capital.

Nevertheless an excellent paper which to an extent succeeds in quantifying concepts which are often just presented as manifesto or anecdote.