This blog is for people (and companies) who are interested in how to benefit from social networks. I will share results of research that examined how network positions can provide benefits to individuals and companies. I will also discuss what to do in order to build better networks[I1] .
I was studying, teaching and researching about social networks for the past 12 years. In this blog, I want to de-mystify the concept of social network as a source of competitive advantage for individuals and organizations. I also want to discuss how positions of social networks can be linked to good things for an individual (or for the individual’s company). For example, certain network positions are likely to make an individual more innovative, receive better performance evaluations or be promoted faster. Hence the title of this BLOG: Networks and Innovation.
What is a social network [and how it can be useful]?
Inter-personal social networks are links that connect individuals. Social networks doesn’t just mean virtual ties in Facebook, social networks mean your “physical” ties such as friendship, advice seeking or support. If you went to an organization and asked everyone “give me the names of people with whom you exchanged information”, you can use this information to build a picture of what social relationships look like in that organization.
Here is a picture of social connections in a hypothetical firm. There are nine individuals working in this firm. The links emerge as a result of them answering questions about information exchange. For example, individuals G and E said that they exchanged information, but no one exchanges information with A. If A were the CEO, I would be worried… No one talks to the guy.
You will note that there are solid and dashed lines. Solid lines represent “strong ties”—frequent relationships between individuals. Dashed lines represent “weak ties”—these are less frequent relationships.
Oftentimes people don’t exchange information across formal boundaries in their organizations. These boundaries are represented by ovals. You will see that there is only one “weak” tie between E and B across two departments.
Is this picture unrealistic? After all, how is it possible that there are so few connections between people and across departments in such a small company? Funny enough, this happens very frequently. People tend to specialize, they talk to others in their departments, but very often this means that they don’t talk to people across departments.
An individual’s position in an inter-personal network will affect this individual’s ability to innovate. What is innovation? It is often a novel [and useful] combination of elements that were not combined before. Imagine that individuals A, E, G, H and F are in the R&D department while individuals B, C, D and E are in the marketing. Because E talks to B, they can have ideas that combine what marketers know with what R&D people know. With all due respect, in many organizations I know of, R&D people mostly talk to R&D people and marketers talk to marketers. When you can combine information from R&D and marketing, you can generate good (and useful ideas). How can you do that? You need to have friends in R&D if you are a marketer and friends in marketing if you are working for R&D.
A useful test to find out about your network concentration in your functional unit, ask yourself:
a) How many people in my organization did I ask for work-related advice in the past three months?
b) Of these people, how many work in my own department?
c) Of these people, how many work outside of my department?
The more people you ask for advice in your department (in proportion to the total number of people you ask for advice), the more is your network concentrated on your department. If most of your contacts come from your department, you need to be worried because you are missing many different opportunities to innovate (or at least to come up with great ideas). If that is the case, make sure your next lunch (or “catch-up” meeting) is with someone from a different department.