29. April 2021

An underappreciated source of novel insights

Original Study: Levin, D.Z. et al (2011): «Dormant Ties: The Value of Reconnecting» In: Organization Science, Vol. 22 (4), pp. 923-939.

The study in one sentence

In contrast to the widespread view that only new contacts provide new insights, this study shows that dormant ties, if reconnected, can be a particularly valuable source of novel insights and knowledge.

Interesting for people who…

… want to understand how novelty in perspective and thinking can be inspired by existing contacts.

What to remember

When a problem appears or we seek new inspiration, we mostly seek out our current network of colleagues or invest in new contacts. This study shows that existing but “dormant” contacts are an underappreciated beneficial and more efficient source for new knowledge than existing or new ones. Why? The life of un-contacted individuals goes on and they continue to encounter new and different experiences, observations and information. Executives who reactivated those contacts by phone or in person (not via email) were surprised by the fresh ideas it provided them and at the same time the level of trust retained, still building on a shared understanding of managerial challenges. The novelty of insights exceeded those of existing contacts, and on top of that, it was achieved more efficiently and in less time - regardless of if the contact had been a former strong relationship or only a weak contact with less trust and shared understanding. Overall, dormant strong ties seem to combine both benefits, novelty and trust, in one relationship. Whereas in current relationships those benefits are found separately: novelty sources in weak contacts and trust in strong ties. However, these effects were bound to dormant contacts that have not been consciously exited by e.g. interpersonal conflict, but simply by losing touch because of changing jobs, organizations, locations or shifting time demands.

The most insightful sentence

«Dormant ties are not dead.»

The most provocative sentence

«Just as all dormant ties are not dead, neither may all dormant ties be equally reconnectable.»

Consequences for managerial practice

Particularly innovative companies who seek an agile and dynamic culture of knowledge creation, should not forget existing “dormant” stakeholder contacts as relevant and efficient sources of new knowledge. This implies e.g. to more systematically invest in Alumni-Networks and to reconnect with former employees, managers and external partners. Companies could even think of leaving contact data of former employees in the current internal phone books or social data platforms. Networking goals should make up part of the performance goals of each employee, including the task to reactivate dormant contacts of their choice to increase the diversity of their networks. As non-conflicting previous relationships are key to benefit from dormant contacts, firms would need to reconsider a life-cycle approach to stakeholder relationships in general, seeing any separation as a temporary one. Embracing such an “au-revoir” instead of an “adieu” strategy would create much more harmonious and positive exit experiences.

Food for forward thinking…

If companies simply try to reactivate network bonds with the sole intention of getting something, they won’t succeed. No one likes to be contacted only for being exploited. How would firms need to apply a more systematic life-cycle networking approach - particularly with former employees – in meaningful, mutual and fair ways? Your experiences and ideas are very welcome – please share with us below!

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
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