Distances in organizations: Innovation in an R&D lab

2016-04-12T11:30:08Z (GMT) by Wilfred Dolfsma Rene Van der Eijk
The distance between actors in an organization affects how they interact with each other, and particularly whether they will exchange (innovative) knowledge with each other. Actors in each other’s proximity have fewer conflicts, more trust towards each other, for example, and are thus more involved in knowledge transfer. Actors close to others thus are believed to perform better: by being more innovative, for instance. This theory of propinquity’s claim resonates widely in the literature and has intuitive appeal: ‘people are most likely to be attracted towards those in closest contact with them’ (Newcomb, Th. (1956). American Psychologist , 11, p. 575). Knowledge that a focal actor receives from alters who are close is more readily accessed, better understood and more readily useable. At the same time, however, and in contrast to the what the theory of propinquity suggests, knowledge that a focal actor receives from alters who are at a greater distance may be more diverse, offer unexpected and valuable insights, and therefore give rise to innovation. In order to understand these opposing expectations, scholars have indicated that distance must be conceived of as multifaceted: individuals can be close to each other in one way, while at the same time distant in another. No prior paper has extensively studied the effects of distance as a multifaceted concept, however. This study offers two distinct contributions. It argues, first, why some instances of distance affect the opportunity to interact with alters, potentially lowering an actor’s performance, while other instances of distance affect the expected benefits from interaction. The latter would increase an actor’s performance. Secondly, this paper is the first study to test empirically the expectations about how seven different measures of distance affect an actor’s innovative performance. Innovative performance is measured as both creative contribution and contribution to knowledge that has immediate commercial use (patents). In the setting of a large research lab, it is found, contrary to expectations, that distance does not hurt individual innovative performance and sometimes helps it in unexpected ways.

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CC BY-NC-ND 4.0