Going Outside of Comfort Zones to Bridge Silos — Ray Reagans

MIT Sloan Prof. Ray Reagans

Silos are fairly common things in large organizations. While bridging those silos can lead to innovation and increased productivity, making those connections can be a tough thing to do. It’s easier to develop networks within the familiar silos than reach out to people in disparate areas.

And even if you do decide to reach out to new people, who do you select and from how many departments? It’s not like you can say you will have strong ties only with people who matter because you don’t know who those people will be and, even if you do know, there will be so many of them that you still will have to make choices.

In research focused on this issue, I studied the knowledge transfer relationships among several hundred scientists and found that when it comes to creating the right network for facilitating knowledge transfer, not all networks are equal.

It’s important to develop a network that gives you a capacity for sharing knowledge in general. This means creating a smaller, more diverse network because it’s more beneficial to develop fewer ties with people in more areas than multiple ties with people in the same area.

By doing this, you develop the ability to share knowledge with people who are different than you. For example, when an employee at a pharmaceutical company spends time with chemists, engineers and biologists, they also develop the capacity to talk to someone in computer science even if they hadn’t dealt with that area in the past.

This isn’t always comfortable because most people like being in environments in which they are the expert, but if you want to develop this general knowledge sharing capacity, you have to develop relationships with people outside of your normal scope of work.

It’s worthwhile to make the effort because employees who are able to form these smaller, diverse networks earn more, are promoted faster, are likelier to come up with innovative ideas within an organization, and are better at mediating disputes between colleagues.

It turns out that making network investments that seem to be inefficient today will really pay off for both employees and firms in the long run. You need to be curious about what colleagues in other parts of the firm are doing and find an excuse to spend time with them. It really is that simple.

Prof. Ray Reagans is the coauthor of “Bridging the Knowledge Gap: The Influence of Strong Ties, Network Cohesion, and Network Range on the Transfer of Knowledge between Organizational Units,” which was published in Organization Science. 

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