People are seen as silhouettes as they check mobile devices whilst standing against an illuminated wall bearing Twitter Inc.'s logo.
Photograph by Chris Ratcliffe — Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Ellen McGirt
August 16, 2016

Interesting research shows that all the time you’re spending on Twitter may not be a complete waste – but only if you’ve cultivated a truly diverse network of people to follow.

Three researchers, Salvatore Parise, from Babson College in Massachusetts, Eoin Whelan from the J.E. Cairnes School of Business & Economics at the National University of Ireland, and Steve Todd, a vice president of strategy and innovation at EMC Corporation, published the results of a five-year research program designed to better understand the role that tech-based networks played on employee innovation.

They focused on Twitter, which is public and filled with widely divergent voices, and studied ten employee groups across five companies in different industries.

Bottom line? There’s a world of inspiration out there if you look. “[T]he ideas of Twitter users were rated significantly more positively by other employees and experts than the ideas of non-users. Raters could only see the ideas themselves, not who submitted them.”


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The tips from the participants on becoming a better “idea scout”:

  • Follow people whose point of view is unfamiliar or which challenges your own. Consider a 70/30 rule – follow 70% of people who are directly relevant to your work, and 30% of people who work and think outside your comfort zone.
  • Choose experts who are social, willing to share and engage in real conversation with others, not just blasting their own points of view.
  • Cull: As your own points of view evolve and you find yourself thinking more like your expert squad, add new voices into the mix.
  • Don’t be shy! Ask questions and share your thoughts, and be generous with your retweets. In addition to making your Twitter feed lively, it can help you make real-life relationships with interesting people.
  • Develop a strategy to share the content you discover with your colleagues, to connect them with the ideas you’re gathering.

My addition to this list: Seek out experts from different races, ethnicities, orientations and from different parts of the world to follow, and consider consciously diversifying your Facebook and LinkedIn feeds as well.

But following cool people isn’t enough. It turns out that the ability to find, identify, understand and repurpose novel ideas is the key to unlocking innovation at work – a development prompt for smart leaders.

From the research:

“Through the interviews, we found that individual absorptive capacity — the ability of employees to identify, assimilate and exploit new ideas — is critical for employees to build and learn from their Twitter networks. This means that if you are a Twitter user with the goal of improving your innovation performance, you need to maintain a diverse network while also developing your information assimilation and exploitation skills.”



Ellen McGirt writes Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.


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