Ditching hierarchical structures and increasing peer to peer interactions across business units engaged in the same projects is good news for sustainability. That’s according to new research led by social scientists at Michigan State University (MSU) and The Nature Conservancy.

Looking at how best practices can be shared during major projects, the pair discovered employees benefited from engaging with innovators on other teams, with those lagging behind in these aspects being the quickest to learn new ideas. The Nature Conservancy North America Region staff were surveyed as part of the research, as were the ways in which staff were offered opportunities to work across departments.

“The finding that you might be best able to learn from those in different organizational units is consistent with longstanding sociological theory,” said Ken Frank, MSU Foundation Professor of Sociometrics. “Innovation comes from people in different units who have knowledge that is new to you. It suggests organisations should encourage employees to think and act outside of their network boxes from time to time.”

When it comes to internships the scientists found a top-down hierarchy to be unnecessary as peers learn quicker from peers.

“For individuals collaborating in a workplace, the ability to communicate and work together is imperative,” added Kaitlin Torphy, lead researcher and founder of the Teachers in Social Media Project at MSU. “Using new methods and practices that have already been adopted by one’s peers makes sense in terms of being able to work together most efficiently. Rather than wanting to be rooted in one’s way, those individuals are more open to new practices and methods.”

They also found that as effective as internships or mentoring can be, the group observed that the top-down hierarchy isn’t necessary. Peers were learning from peers. 

The study was reported in this month’s journal Organization & Environment.