It’s not what you know, it is who you know, or so the saying goes. But in the corporate and political world who you sit next to, it seems, may be just as significant.
So says Christopher Liu, assistant professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management in Canada. Along with PhD student Jillian Chown, Prof Liu has been investigating just how important it is to sit next to the right person and in the right place in the office.
To do this, the two looked at the US Senate and the power and influence that the senators wield. The Senate provided an effective live laboratory, says Prof Liu, because one-third of its members are up for re-election every two years, so each of the senators usually sit in three different seats during their six-year term.
The researchers analysed the cosponsorship patterns for bills proposed between 1979 and 2001 and compared the data for seating charts from the period. They found that senators who sat close to each other tended to co-sponsor the same bill – and, indeed, each other’s bills. “Physical presence is key,” says Prof Liu.
So, how can the research, published in the Strategic Management Journal, be applied to business? “At the heart of it I am trying to get to organisational design,” says Prof Liu.
For those who want to influence the strategy of the company and build support for ideas among co-workers, then neighbours really matter, concludes Prof Liu. “I would argue that geography is a tool. You want to sit in a very diverse area. You want to sit at the intersection of several departments.”
In spite of his research, he admits that he does not always practice what he preaches. Rather than being proactive in seeking out support, “I sit in my office and wait for people to pass by,” he admits.
Of course, there are some people that do not need to worry about where they sit, says Prof Liu. “If individuals happen to be super-powerful, location doesn’t matter: people will find them.”