As the first of our profiles of TIM people, let us introduce Anne ter Wal, of Imperial College Business School, in London, UK. Anne, so…
What are your research interests right now?
I have always been a network scholar and have always been interested in innovation, but over the years I have shifted my focus quite dramatically. During my PhD – in economic geography – I studied how networks develop in innovative clusters. After that I shifted to innovation management, where I have been studying how networks help individuals such as entrepreneurs, R&D scientists and managers to achieve innovative outcomes. But only recently I made the most radical shift: from studying networks as a structure to studying networks as a behaviour. Given the importance of networking in today’s professional world, it is surprising how little we actually know about how individuals network. I am very fortunate to have an ERC Starting Grant that allows my to build a behavioural perspective on entrepreneurial networking, using a variety of methods ranging from qualitative research to network experiments. Together with two post-docs and a PhD student I am seeking to discover the networking behaviours – both strategic/deliberate and spontaneous/serendipitous – that allow entrepreneurs to build a thriving and innovative business.
What do you think is your most exciting contribution to academia?
Well, that is a very difficult question, but looking back the biggest moment of euphoria in the conduct of my research relates to my 2016 publication in ASQ about the value of closed-diverse and open-specialised networks for venture success. In this project, we had detailed network data obtained from CrunchBase that allowed us to separate network structure (open vs. closed) from network diversity (diverse vs. specialised). Typically, in networks research open networks are assumed to be diverse and closed ones to be specialised, but we questioned this assumption. From the outset, we had the intuition that open networks are actually more valuable if they are specialised (makes brokered information easier to interpret) and closed networks more valuable if they are diverse (creates a high-trust environment yet with sufficient knowledge diversity). Testing this came down to an interaction effect that – due to other complications in the estimation model – was quite hard to graph. But when the graph eventually popped up on my screen, I was euphoric. Results were exactly as predicted: start-ups whose investors have closed-diverse or open-specialised networks outperformed those whose investors had open-diverse or closed-specialised networks. I believe this result is an important contribution, as it helps resolve the perennial debate on network structure and information advantage by showing how networks can combine diversity advantages typically associated with open networks and interpretation advantages typically associated with closed ones. The insights also have direct practical implications: to get a rich and diverse network individuals do well to reach out to pockets of specialists outside of their usual clique (to create open-specialised networks) or introduce diverse people in their network to each other (to create closed-diverse networks).
Tell us something personal about yourself
An even bigger passion of mine than networks and innovation is my interest in cars. From as long as I remember I have been interested in cars, and ever since I was a small boy I have been collecting model cars. By now my collection has grown to about 250 miniature cars! During weekends and evenings you will often find me with a car magazine in my hands to stay on top of all developments in the industry. The car industry is in a state of flux and I am very curious to see how current technological developments such as autonomous driving, electrical vehicle technology, and hydrogen vehicles will evolve and diffuse over the next years. Despite what many heads of industry believe (namely that hydrogen, electric and combustion engines will continue to co-exist alongside each other), innovation theories would predict that we eventually converge again to a dominant propulsion technology. We will have to wait and see what happens. Although I have never really exploited my interest in cars for my research, I do draw on many examples in my teaching, possibly to the boredom of my students… For example, I use a case about Google versus MobilEye in the market for autonomous vehicle technology, as it is a great way to illustrate the complexities and dynamics of standard battles in an up-to-date setting.
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