Changing Places

When workers change departments for a short time–for example, shadowing another employee in a totally different part of the organization–it enhances the innovation potential of the entire organization. That’s because it results in more “weak links” throughout the organization’s social network. And from research, we know that creativity is more likely to result when information flows through these weak links–because it brings together diverse types of knowledge into surprising new combinations.

Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal* describes many companies that are successfully using this strategy:

To help workers sharpen their skills, stay motivated and identify new roles they might aim for in the future. Moreover, they help address a challenge that many companies are facing: how to better foster collaboration across different specialties and regions.

An Intel, employees can find temporary assignments by searching an internal database. This program just launched last March, and already 1,300 positions have been filled. Other companies finding success with this approach include Virgin America and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

My book Group Genius explains why this works: Because it helps resolve the challenge of “knowledge management.” How do you get information moving through the organization effectively, particularly across organizational boundaries? In addition to this “shadowing” technique, other knowledge management techniques help accomplish the same goal:

  • “Idea labs” that bring cross-disciplinary teams together for one or two weeks
  • Job descriptions that are broad, allowing each employee to cross multiple areas
  • More frequent reassignment of staff

Research shows that all of these methods help to diffuse tacit knowledge–the kind of knowledge that’s hard to capture in computerized knowledge management systems, or in formal documents. And research shows that it’s this tacit knowledge that, more often than not, results in innovation.

*Lauren Weber and Leslie Kwoh, “Co-workers change places.” Wall Street Journal, Tuesday February 21, 2012, p. B8.

2 thoughts on “Changing Places

  1. good to see that MODERN companies are returning to do what many companies have done in the past….

    Cross-fertilization experience.

    One of the best jobs I ever had was when I was a Graphics & Signage designer at a very large architectural firm. I and most of our 10 person G&S dept staff were generally responsible for all major presentations and visual design work throughout the company and for the architectural clients.

    The benefit with my architectural and graphics degrees and working experience in architecture I got to know people, from department head down in all the various departments through working on projects for them in the office and privately for them.

    That was when I began to learn that the most important set of skills is people skills (a wide gambit of them).

    When I later had my own architectural firm it was the use of the skills with engineers of all types, building officials, inspectors, sales reps, government officials I was able to get my architectural projects approved and inspected faster.

  2. It sounds like you are what is sometimes called a “T-shaped” person, meaning that you combine deep expertise in one area (the vertical bar of the T) with at least passing knowledge of lots of other areas (the horizontal bar).

    Hansen, M. T., & Oetinger, B. v. (2001). Introducing T-shaped managers. Harvard Business Review, 79(3), 106-116.

    Brown, T. (2005, June 1). Strategy by Design. Fast Company.

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