Anne L.J. ter Wal – Imperial College London, Business School
Paula Criscuolo – Imperial College London, Business School
Bill McEvily – University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management
Ammon Salter – University of Bath, School of Management
Article link: https://doi.org/10.1177/0001839219893691
Hello, ASQ blog readers. We had the pleasure to speak to Anne ter Wal, Associate Professor of Technology and Innovation Management at Imperial College Business School, about his recent co-authored paper on ‘Dual Networking’. Anne has done extensive research on the role of networks in innovation and entrepreneurship, especially how individuals access new knowledge and ideas through networks within and between organizations.
1. Could you please share how and when the idea for your article developed? In which way was it driven by data, theory, or the phenomenon?
Ter Wal: That’s an interesting one. Because of a research grant that I had back in 2014, I visited the Rotman School of Management for three months. So I spent a very cold winter in Toronto, Canada, hosted by Bill McEvily, one of my co-authors. We were doing a study with an organization that we call Neptune which I had worked with already for quite a few years. And we were in the process of setting up a new interview- and survey-based study. And it was around that time that we really started to bounce off some ideas with Bill and my long-term co-authors, Paola and Ammon, about what we may do in relation to networks.
The motivation for this project specifically was really in the phenomenon. Neptune, the organization we studied, had these partnerships of managers and technologists in R&D and whenever we interviewed them, we were quite fascinated. Some partners could almost finish each other’s sentences. This is how closely they work together. And essentially, the question that we were interested in answering from the context was: if we observe that these two people so closely divide their work, can they also divide their network? The original intuition was about, if people work very closely together, to what extent should their networks overlap, or perhaps, should they be complementary or different? So it was quite an abstract question that we were asking, but really grounded in something that was quite peculiar about the organization that we were studying, which was these innovation partnerships in R&D.
2. Could you also tell us how the focus of your research developed over time?
Ter Wal: When I think about the evolution of the core idea, I think the central nugget of the idea has always been the same because we were interested in answering the question of how people working together can divide their networks. The arguments and the theories we used to better support these ideas have evolved quite a bit. Actually, we introduced the dual networking concept and terminology only in the final revision of the paper. I think one of the great things of ASQ is that, at least in my experience, you’ve got a very strong reviewer team and an editor who thinks along constructively. So they’ve been very thought-provoking, and helping us in providing useful direction in how to develop our core ideas better. I think, sometimes, you have reviewers that steer you away from your core ideas. And I think in this case, we were lucky enough that we really could strengthen the idea, but not necessarily deviate from or dilute them, which often happens when your paper goes through the review process.
3. The empirical research setting seems to require deeper upfront knowledge into the organization you studied. Could you tell us how you successfully built this collaboration? And what is your experience in balancing your needs as a researcher with the needs of the industrial partner over time?
Ter Wal: I think the working relationship we have with this organization, Neptune, is a great asset. But these things can be quite difficult and tricky to manage, so the collaborative relationship between us as a research team and this organization preceded this particular study. In my experience, good research in collaboration with industry partners is really quite close to the challenges that the organization itself faces. I think both with this study and with other work that I’ve done in collaboration with industry, I really try to identify some of the pain points in the organization that they were seeking answers to. So in this particular case, they had set up these R&D partnerships that had started a while back, and they really believed in them quite strongly as a way to “bring the what’s needed and what’s possible together”. So in some ways, managers and technologists are quite specialized roles. And ultimately, innovation only happens when these two people, these two roles in R&D, come together effectively. And although they saw some very successful examples of how this was done, they also realized that they didn’t really know what made partnerships work well.
4. We noticed that similar to your 2014 paper in Organization Science, this paper also uses mixed methods. Could you tell us more about the mixed method research design and how you manage the qualitative interview data and the survey data to inform your research question?
Ter Wal: I guess there’s two things. One is, there’s multiple ways in which you can do mixed method research in terms of the research setup. And there’s also multiple ways in which you can incorporate it into the paper. In terms of the research design, what personally works for me is to have qualitative data collection first, and quantitative data collection afterwards. I think the reason why it works for me is that I think we design better surveys once we better understand the research context we’re studying. So in terms of asking the right questions, and designing the questions in a way that is most intelligible to the informants is very important. Also, I think, it just helps us to ask the right questions. So for the bootlegging paper in Organization Science, we were not even intending to do research on bootlegging. It’s something that struck us when doing our first interviews, like people always talked about their pet projects, their under-the-radar projects. There’s not so much research about that. So we wanted to do something with that empirically in a quantitative setup. That idea came from the interviews, we wouldn’t have undertaken it at all, if it wasn’t for the interviews.
In terms of the write-up of the paper, I think mixed methods papers are complex, because there’s so many different ways. And I still think there’s no clear template as to how you want to combine the two. So you see papers where the qualitative data are integrated in the results section. So where you look at the results from a quantitative point of view, and provide some contextual interpretation based on the interviews. We decided to do it differently, because we just wanted to essentially bring the partnerships alive and illustrate what they are about, and what’s unique about them, and what kind of difficulties partners, technologists and managers, working together face in their joint innovation effort.
Although there are exceptions, I personally find it difficult to incorporate interview quotes in the theory section of the paper, although this is sometimes done. I guess most importantly, because there’s a huge pitfall that you will replace your theoretical arguments with what is, at that stage, maybe more like anecdotal evidence from the field. So you want to make sure that the hypotheses you build are grounded in the theory as opposed to only in your phenomenon, in your research context.
5. Thank you for those great insights and advice. And for PhD students who are interested in mixed methods, what would you recommend?
Ter Wal: I would say, to some extent, almost any research study could be a mixed method research study. But I think it’s very important even if you do mostly desk-based research, where you use data that you compile based on different sources from the internet, patent data sets, or whatever it may be that you are using. But I think, speaking to your research subjects, or people who know your research context very well is extremely important. In some of my other research, I’ve used, for example, Crunchbase data. And one of my PhD students is currently using that type of data. But I certainly encouraged him to go and talk to venture capitalists to look at what is the story behind the data. So you’re looking at certain types of decisions that venture capitalists take and you infer this from a large data set … but if you were to ask people, what would they say? The types of arguments that you evoke in your quantitative research, are they reflected in the research context that you’re studying? So I think having one foothold in the real world is really important. And most of the time, we don’t call this mixed method research, some of this just happens in the background. And it may sometimes not even be quite explicitly stated in the paper. But making sure you always have one foot in the real world and that you know that the types of questions you’re asking are grounded in reality. I think this is extremely important for doing meaningful and high-impact research, even if the contributions ultimately are much more theoretical and not necessarily focused on practice.
6. Just quickly follow-up on that. You mentioned that you published a blog version about the paper, on Imperial’s website. Social publishing formats seem to be able to reach a broader audience. How do you think you translate your research findings into something that practitioners can apply in their companies?
Ter Wal: I think, what’s really great is the strong interface between research and teaching. So I have the pleasure of an MBA elective that is called Strategic Networking. I have to say that when I developed this course five years ago, it was quite daunting, because let’s say there is a lot of networking guidance and advice out there. But most of the academic research is on networks and not on networking. So I think we can teach you about concepts such as brokerage, boundary spanning, and they’re very useful. They’re very powerful concepts. But ultimately, they don’t really teach the typical MBA student what they should do if they go to the office, right? At a practical level, how do you network – in the active sense of the word – is something very difficult.
When I developed this course five years ago, I did this with the ambition to close this gap between the way we think about networking as a strategic tool, a skill set, and the way we talk about it in research. I think there’s a really strong two-way relationship between research and teaching. Some of the ideas that I have pursued in this study published in ASQ, is partly inspired by talking to MBA students and talking to professionals about how they think about their network. But certainly also the other way around. So when it comes to dual networking, we actually have in-class discussions around some of these concepts. So I try to engage my MBA students around the core ideas of the paper. And that is certainly helpful when you try and write a blog, because it makes it more concrete. To think about how some of these ideas might find very practical application in people’s professional lives.
7. Would you like to share any other comments?
Ter Wal: Perhaps two things. One is network specific and the other one is more general advice for PhD students and young scholars. Firstly, I think social networks research has a very strong paradigm. So I think there are concepts that have really been very important and are still very important in the way we tend to think about networks: brokerage, closure, and boundary spanning being the prime suspects. I find it very refreshing to work on something quite different. And I would definitely want to encourage young scholars to think about networks in the broader sense of the word. I think there are many new questions in network research and new dilemmas that people face when they’re building their networks. So I think there’s still a lot of unexplored territory in network research that is there to be explored. And what this study shows is that we didn’t necessarily think about the overlap of networks between two people who are working together. Particularly young scholars should go out in the field and think about what are the types of questions about networks that haven’t been asked yet. And be bold enough to embrace new concepts, if there is need to do so.
The second point for young scholars, I think, is to be bold and to trust your intuition when it comes to doing things differently. So sometimes, I think that PhD students and young scholars have read so much that it is quite difficult for them to see how things can be done differently. Of course, having a very solid foundation in the existing literature is extremely important. And particularly in a journal like ASQ, you’d not be easily forgiven for overlooking core bits of the literature. At the same time, I think you need to be bold and ambitious to explore different ways of looking at a problem, which often then requires you to develop new concepts and ideas, and just do things a little bit differently from how they’re usually done. So I think they always say that people are at their most creative earlier on in their career. So it is, young scholars like yourselves who hold great promise for, again, perhaps unraveling a different aspect of networks, or rethinking how networks enable innovation in different ways. So being bold and courageous in doing so, I think is something I would encourage anyone to do in order to make sure that, for example, network research does not become too paradigmatic.
Xule Lin: Xule is a PhD student in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at the Imperial College Business School. He joined Imperial in 2019. Previously, he spent eight years studying and working in South Bend and Chicago. His current research examines the governance modes in blockchain-native organizations, such as DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations).
Nadine Scholz: Nadine is a PhD student in Corporate Entrepreneurship & Innovation at King’s College London. Her research explores entrepreneurial practices of employees engaging in underground innovation activity in incumbent organizations. Before joining King’s she worked in several e-commerce startups in the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands.