Posted: 22 Feb. 2016 05 min. read

The effects of diversity and network ties on innovations

The emergence of a new scientific field

Researchers studied hundreds of teams who spent years innovating to shape a new scientific field – Oncofertility. In dealing with such an unexplored topic, which can only advance with a high degree of creativity, what kinds of diversity delivers results?

A diverse group innovating has more collective wisdom than a uniform group, but they may not always work together cohesively (Milliken, Bartel, & Kurtzberg, 2003). Unconstructive tensions can inhibit the likelihood, value and sustainability of their outputs, which is risky when organisations depend on innovation to stay relevant. So in a fast-paced and globalised world how can leaders assemble and manage diverse teams to out-innovate their competition? Even more bluntly, what type of diversity helps teams to innovate and what is redundant?

Research conducted by Alina Lungeanu (Northwestern University) and Professor Noshir S. Contractor (Northwestern University) explored dimensions of diversity which are common among highly innovative teams. They analysed the team compositions of hundreds of researchers who have helped shape an emerging field of science which only gained a term in 2007 – Oncofertility: the study of fertility preservation in cancer patients.

In essence their work:

  • Reinforced prior research: Teams which comprised members from different cognitive backgrounds were more successful at innovating
  • Identified a key bias: Teams with members from the same country were more successful at innovating
  • Highlighted the importance of familiarity and trust – thinking about innovation as a long-term and ongoing activity: Team members who had a history of collaboration within the network of researchers were more successful at innovation


This research aimed to understand the dimensions of diversity which affect creativity and innovation. Looking into observable and unobservable traits of diversity, they developed the hypotheses in the following areas:

  1. Cognitive diversity: Individuals that possess disparate knowledge are more likely to produce innovative ideas through collaboration
  2. Gender diversity: Individuals of the same gender are more likely to produce innovative ideas through collaboration
  3. Country homophily: Individuals located within the same country are more likely to produce innovative ideas through collaboration

Additionally, the researchers sought to address some limitations they observed in the literature about innovation. They felt that the innovation discourse was highly focused on the characteristics of individuals responsible for innovation and that it tended to fixate on innovations that were one-off breakthroughs.

As part of their work, the researchers wanted to hone in on whether the relationships between collaborators mattered to innovation outcomes. They also wanted to take a longitudinal approach to see how the accomplishments of innovators changed over the years.


To measure innovation, the researchers used the metric of publication of work in scientific journals. The authors looked at bibliographical data of 1354 researchers from 469 publications between 2007 and 2010.

They measured cognitive diversity by examining the degree of similarity in the citations of pairs of researchers, using what’s known as the Jaccard-similarity coefficient. “Here, two researchers who cite the same literature are found to be more likely to come from the same research area and to possess similar knowledge.”

To measure gender and countries of affiliation they conducted desktop research about the forty-nine researchers butwere unable to find data to support this hypothesis.  Instead, the researchers looked into prior collaborations by documenting the history of co-authorship, using statistical modelling to see what connections were made over time across the network of Oncofertility researchers.


The key findings showed that research teams whose members had 1) diverse cognitive backgrounds and 2) were from the same country of affiliation, were more innovative. It also showed that 3) researchers who had a prior history of collaboration, either with each other or with those in the extended network, were more innovative. There was not a significant result in gender diversity.

  1. Diverse cognitive backgrounds improved innovation

    “We found that individuals who draw knowledge from multiple varied sources and have access to diverse knowledge areas (Lee, 2010) are more likely to collaborate on innovative tasks.”

  2. Country of affiliation improved innovation

    “This speaks to the level of comfort that accompanies being in the same country.”

    The authors suggested a few examples of how innovation is facilitated by country homophily: “They may share common cultural and educational backgrounds, a common language, and potential constraints from national funding agencies that encourage, or even require, collaborations with others within the country by controlling the amount of funding allowed to leave the country.”

  3. Relational ties improved innovation

    “One possible explanation for this difference may be that, during the new, emerging stages of a field, such network closure can help build an intellectual coherence that is critical in gaining legitimacy within the larger scholarly community, as well as with funding agencies.”

    It is also known that individuals who share many common network partners are more likely to trust each other given the cost of being exposed to their common connections (Burt & Knez, 1995).”


There are a few implications that can be applied to a business context from this research.

Managing ‘out-group’ bias

While the results of this research showed that homophily in country of affiliation helped researchers achieve innovative results, the authors note that this helped because it “reduce[d] uncertainty in the interactions associated with innovation”. If the goal is to reduce uncertainty among group members when they’re geographically-dispersed, it suggests that leaders can intervene by pre-empting out-group bias when assembling global teams. By focusing attention on helping team members from diverse countries to bridge this perceived gap, it could accelerate how quickly they bond.

Trust and thinking of innovation long-term

Further to overcoming bias, trust was also as a theme when it came to relational ties. The more collaborative the researchers were, the more innovative they became over time, which benefited the whole scientific discipline.

It reflects how organisations can aim to develop an ecosystem of innovation as their outputs increase year over year as relational ties form into an interconnected network of collaborators. It speaks to the importance of thinking of innovation as a long-term initiative, reducing barriers for collaboration and to keep track of employee involvement over time.

Merging technology and diverse expertise for competitive advantage

The research touched on the role of technology at several points. They note that even though technology has increased the potential for people to collaborate with experts worldwide, researchers are still primarily collaborating with those in their country of affiliation.

At the same time, the research made it clear that tapping into diverse cognitive thinking enhances the quality, frequency and magnitude of innovation. This creates an opportunity for organisations that are prepared to take on the obstacles of managing global teams and the challenges of forming relationships over telecommunications.

If researchers were able to spur the growth of a new scientific discipline through innovation and diversity, then similar ground-breaking results could be achieved in a business context to solve organisations’ most complex problems.

For more information, contact Tom Champion.

To read the full article, see Lungeanu, A., and Contractor, N. S. (2015). The Effects of Diversity and Network Ties on Innovations: The Emergence of a New Scientific Field, American Behavioral Scientist. Vol. 59(5), pp. 548-564. Retrieved from


Burt, R. S., & Knez, M. (1995). Kinds of third-party effects on trust. Rationality and Society, 7, 255-292.

Lee, J. (2010). Heterogeneity, brokerage, and innovative performance: Endogenous formation of collaborative inventor networks. Organization Science, 21, 804-822.

Milliken, F. J., Bartel, C. A., & Kurtzberg, T. R. (2003). Diversity and creativity in work groups: A dynamic perspective on the affective and cognitive processes that linkURL diversity and performance. In P. B. Paulus & B. A. Nijstad (Eds.), Group creativity: Innovation through collaboration (pp. 32-62). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

This was originally authored by Tom Champion.


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