Networks play two very different roles in innovation. Broad-ranging social networks are great for moving knowledge about ideas, technologies, and people from where they're known to where they're not. And those with broad-ranging networks tend to be in a better position to see these ideas. But ideas are not so valuable in the innovation process, as I and others have argued.
This past week's New Yorker features a terrific article by Malcolm Gladwell, "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted," that illustrates this difference—between social networking as our kids know it and social networking as our parents' generation did.
Historically, there have always been plenty of ideas. The critical ingredient in innovation is not the new ideas, but rather the commitment to make something new happen from those ideas. Gladwell looks at the civil rights movement and, particularly, at the four college students who sat down at the "whites only" lunch counter at the Woolworth's in downtown Greensboro, launching a wave of sit-ins across the south that would eventually include seventy-thousand participants.
Those four students didn't meet on facebook or plan on twitter, they had strong ties to one another and to their beliefs and, as a result, they were able to show a courage built on the knowledge that each had the others's back. This is the same courage many small groups demonstrate as they break from pack—whether it's the Impressionists, the Beatles, or countless entrepreneurial teams.
Compare the role these strong ties play in the innovation process to the attention and support they get from innovation research and from federal innovation policies. We're chasing the next new idea when we should be encouraging strong ties around the ideas we already have.