I was asked to contribute to an article in CIO magazine — The CIO’s Dilemma: Innovate AND Cut Costs. The question was how can CIO’s preserve their organization’s ability to innovate in the face of budget cuts? My response was relatively simple.

“To work in any complex field, we have to be connected to loose social networks that provide us with a view of the frontiers of our knowledge, says Harold Jarche (@hjarche), a partner at Internet Time Alliance. “We then need to actively engage in communities of practice to develop shared understanding among our peers. Then we can truly contribute as members of teams working on complex problems. None of this costs additional money, only time and attention.”

Like some others who responded, I said that innovation is not expensive. Innovation is connected ideas and connected people. The more possible connections, the better the chances for innovation. It’s all about the connections.

Steven B. Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, observed that, “innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas” and that the “secret to organizational inspiration is to build information networks that allow hunches to persist and disperse and recombine”.

The challenge for larger organizations is to find ways of understanding what is happening throughout the system and ensuring it is communicated within the network. Therefore we have to seek new ideas from our professional social networks and then filter them through more focused conversations with our communities of practice where we have trusted relationships. We make sense of these embryonic ideas by doing new things, either ourselves, or with our work and project teams. We later share our creations, first with our teams and perhaps later with our communities or even our networks. We use our understanding of our communities and networks to discern with whom and when to share our knowledge.

Communities of practice act as filters of new knowledge in order to find competitive knowledge for the organization. People who understand the context of the work teams must participate in communities of practice, as only they can identify what new knowledge could be competitive. That means that those doing the work need time and support to get away from their teams and see the bigger picture.

Radical innovation only comes from networks with large structural holes which are more diverse. This is why our social networks cannot also be our work teams, or they become echo chambers. In our work teams we can focus intensely on incremental innovation, to get better at what we already do. Communities of practice, with both strong and weak social ties, then become a bridge on this network continuum, enabling both individual and interactive creativity.

To see the frontiers of our knowledge we need time to interact, converse, reflect, and experiment. Doing so in a conscious way can help us master the network economy.