How Twitter users generate better ideas

Social media is sometimes accused of blinding us to new ideas. But a recent article in the MIT Sloan Management Review suggested quite the opposite: that Twitter users generated better ideas. But how? Here are key takeaways from the piece.

A diverse social network improves innovation – Steve Jobs knew this intuitively, but empirical studies have confirmed it: being exposed to diverse ideas and experiences helps people to innovate. It seems to be particularly important to be exposed to new ideas and different ways of thinking, and then combine these with existing views. Twitter enables users to actively seek out alternative points of view.

Twitter use seems to be improve the quality of ideas, not the quantity – In one particular company studied, the MIT researchers examined the number and quality of ideas submitted to an internal ‘ideas management’ system by Twitter users and non-users. Members of the two groups submitted about the same number of ideas, but those of Twitter users were consistently rated more positively by both their fellow employees and by experts than those of non-users.

The most important driver of idea quality is Twitter network diversity  – In other words, the most innovative people were not those who posted most often, or engaged with others more readily via Twitter. The most important factor was the level of diversity in the person’s Twitter network: whether they were following a large number of people who did not follow each other. A more compact network, with more people following each other, can lead to redundant information-sharing.

Assembling the right network may take time – Effective Twitter users suggested that time spent listening was crucial to building the right network. They described this as a ‘breadcrumb’ approach: by watching and listening to who engaged with whom, and who was retweeted, they could build an effective network on an ongoing basis.

Maintaining diversity can also be a challenge over time – One Twitter user interviewed in the study noted that it is important to work on maintaining the diversity of the network. It is quite likely that as you follow people with different views, your views will change. After a period, you may find that your network is less diverse, and you need to broaden it again. One person suggested following 70% who were in the same industry, and 30% outside, for interest.

As well as a diverse network, it is also important to be able to assimilate and exploit information – As well as being exposed to new and diverse ideas, you also need to have what is known as individual absorptive capacity: the ability to identify new ideas, and then take them on board and act on them. You could think of this as open-mindedness, but it also has an element of both curiosity and desire to experiment, actively looking for opportunities to put new ideas into practice. There are two main elements to this: idea scouting and idea connecting. The best can manage both.

Idea scouts explore and gather ideas from outside the organisation – Idea scouts tend to have very diverse networks, so that they can gather ideas from a wide range of sources. They are open to new ideas, and ready to be enlightened by others. One suggestion was to follow known ‘early adopters’ of technology, to gain tips about new tools and how to use them.

Idea connectors assimilate external ideas and put them into practice in the organisation. – The best idea connectors do not simply act as a conduit from Twitter into the organisation. They also actively curate the content that they gather, and consider how best it could be used. In other words, they add value by their engagement with the ideas and with their colleagues inside the organisation.

It may be necessary to filter information for different groups – Different audiences within the organisation are likely to have different needs and levels of technical knowledge. It is therefore important to be able to filter and focus information. The most effective idea connectors target information accurately and appropriately, and communicate it effectively, focusing on their audience.

The ideal option is to be able to bring together ideas from different sources and add value – A diverse network will throw up ideas about all kinds of things. It should enable you to bring together ideas from different sources, and start to spot trends and relationships, to add real value as far as your organisation is concerned.

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