Twitter diversity can help spark better ideas

The stampede for Twitter shares recently culminated in the company’s founders and early investors becoming even wealthier.

And of course we are all delighted for them. But if you don’t happen to be one of those lucky investors, does Twitter bestow any real value? The answer, it seems, is yes. Using Twitter can help us become more innovative.

This is the one of the findings from an extensive study I conducted alongside my colleague, Sal Parise from Babson College in Massachusetts. Over the past two years, we have analysed the thousands of ideas submitted by employees of the EMC Corporation as part of an internal idea competition.

What we found is that employees who use Twitter tend to submit significantly better ideas.

But before you try to convince your boss that the hours you spend on Twitter contemplating the latest musings of Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian is actually good for the company, there is an important caveat. Twitter only stimulates better ideas when it is used purposefully. Let me explain.

Curious as to why Twitter use was associated with idea quality, we began analysing the Twitter networks of those EMC employees participating in our study. Our investigations reveal that it’s not the number of people you follow on Twitter that matters.

What is more important, for generating quality ideas at least, is the diversity within one’s network.

Many of the workers we studied use Twitter to keep abreast of emerging trends and technologies relevant to their job. But if the people I follow on Twitter all follow each other, then this will eventually lead to a groupthink situation, which is not good for innovation.

Similarity of thought is to innovation what Trapattoni’s methods are to football flair.

Remember The Beautiful South? They had a string of hits throughout the 1990s but decided to call it a day in 2007, citing ‘musical similarities’ as an impediment to creative song-writing.

Steve Jobs, whose very name is synonymous with innovation, also appreciated the value of collaborating with those who move in different circles.

As Pixar’s CEO he explicitly instructed the architect of its new headquarters to design physical space which encouraged staff to get out of their offices and mingle, particularly with those they normally wouldn’t. Jobs believed these serendipitous exchanges released the creative juices that fuelled innovation.

Our own study suggests that Jobs’ beliefs also apply to the virtual world. Good ideas flow when social media is used to connect with those who challenge our opinions and beliefs.

A EMC HR professional explained how she melds serendipity into her Twitter network by adopting a 70/30 rule; 70% of what she follows is directly relevant to her work, while 30% is extracurricular interests.

She was able to recall how a tweet from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins changed the way she thought and sparked the idea for what eventually became a very successful employee engagement programme.

While social media can expose the masses to contradictory viewpoints, which is good for innovation — and a functioning democracy for that matter — it is all too easy to find evidence where such communication platforms are used to reinforcing pre-existing views.

For example, a recent gang war escalation in Chicago is being blamed on the power of social media. Minor beefs between rival gangs amplify on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Bigger rifts ensue and young men lose their lives.

So while most of us won’t have any extra euros to show from Twitter’s IPO, if we use the platform to expose ourselves to a variety of viewpoints, we can take comfort in the fact that we will become richer of mind.

* Eoin Whelan is a lecturer in business information systems at the Cairnes School of Business and Economics in National University of Ireland Galway.


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