Tilburg University department Management

Instrumental and affective ties within the laboratory: The impact of informal cliques on innovative productivity

Published: 10th October 2019 Last updated: 20th March 2024

Innovation within firms is influenced by the relationships individuals create and maintain among each other. In particular, knowledge-sharing ties can provide access to diverse knowledge that can enhance their innovative performance.

By Manuel Gomez Solorzano

Assistant Professor, Tilburg School of Economics and Management, Department of Management

According to research by Manuel Gomez-Solorzano, Marco Tortoriello, and Giuseppe Soda, it is also a matter of the ‘relational content’ of these relationships and their ‘strength’ what ultimately determines their influence on innovation.

The study, published in the September 2019 issue of The Strategic Management Journal, considers how the relational content, the structure, and the position an individual occupies in informal networks within firms have consequences on his/her innovative performance. By studying informal ties among inventors within the corporate R&D laboratory of a large European pharmaceutical company, they find evidence that inventors´ innovative productivity is enhanced by having strong and embedded relationships with their colleagues, regardless of these relationships being instrumental or affective. However, when inventors are caught in-between strong instrumental ties and strong affective ties, their innovative productivity suffers, ultimately hampering the firm’s innovative capabilities.

Knowledge-sharing ties or friendship ties

The authors used interviews and survey tools to map the informal ties among 113 researchers engaged in the overriding objective of generating innovations for the company. These ties were classified as either knowledge-sharing ties or friendship ties. The former imply a relationship between two researchers that is primarily based on the frequent exchange of scientific knowledge (i.e. an instrumental relationship) and the latter imply a relationship between two researchers that is primarily based on friendship (i.e. an affective relationship). Through this mapping, the informal instrumental and affective structures of the R&D laboratory were constructed allowing the identification of individuals embedded in strong relationships (groups of individuals who are mutually connected to each other, i.e. cliques) in either structure, and the positions these individuals occupy between these structures (individuals who simultaneously were involved in both instrumental and affective cliques).

Patent applications

Using social network analysis and econometric models, the authors find that the likelihood of generating patent applications is positively correlated with either Knowledge-sharing or Friendship Cliques, yet this positive correlation is diminished for individuals who are involved jointly in both types of cliques. Furthermore, for inventors in their sample, being embedded in one type of clique mean having 4.6 more patent applications than those inventors who are not part of a clique. Nonetheless, if inventors also belong to the other type of clique then they file 2.19 fewer patent applications compared to those inventors who only belong to one type of clique. Put differently, being in a friendship (knowledge-sharing) clique but not in a knowledge-sharing (friendship) clique is positive, while being in both at the same time is negative.

Awareness of potential negative effects

For managers concerned about promoting the innovativeness of his/her organization, it is critical to understand that favouring knowledge-sharing among individuals obviously matters, but that also favouring an open, friendly environment could become an important asset to leverage. Furthermore, for individuals working in knowledge intensive environments, awareness of the potential negative effects of combining different types of interactions as they form social and professional relationships at work is paramount to ensure their innovative performance within the firm is not hampered.

The logics, expectations, and nature of instrumental relationships are substantively different from those of affective relationships. Given the results of this study, trying to manage both at once could be hard to do in a professional setting and have a negative impact on the ability to generate innovative outcomes.