The Ties that Find

When I talk about Enterprise 2.0, the most common question I hear is some variant of "How do we convince our colleagues (or bosses) of the value of deploying these technologies?" I’ve usually replied by describing the capabilities brought by E2.0 —  new modes of collaboration, giving people an opportunity to express their judgment, and self-organization — and by repeating my aversion to quantitative IT business cases containing rosy ROI or NPV figures. I’ve also stressed that we need to keep amassing case studies to demonstrate what’s possible. I often get the impression, though, that this answer leaves some people unsatisfied.

I’ve recently been hearing a more focused version of this question. My presentations on E2.0 now always include a discussion of social networking software (SNS) like Facebook and its direct applicability within companies. As I’ve written before, SNS lets users build a network of friends, keep abreast of what that network is up to, and even exploit it by doing things like posting a question that all friends will see. All of these activities, especially the latter two, seem like they’d be highly valuable within a company, especially a large and/or geographically distributed one where you can’t access all colleagues just by bumping into them in the hallway.

Even after describing the benefits of SNS this way, though, I almost always get a question like "But how do I convince my company that an internal Facebook is a good idea and a tool that will enhance productivity? Most of our executives still look at it as nothing but a time waster —  a tool for planning happy hour and online popularity contests."

I came across an elegant and convincing answer to this question when I remembered one of the readings I did as a doctoral student. Perhaps the best thing about HBS’s DBA program when I went through it a decade ago was that students spent much of their first year immersed in many literatures relevant to business study (sociology, organizational psychology, economics, etc.) rather than immediately diving into only one. This approach exposed us to many powerful ideas and thinkers, and forever put the lie to the idea that there’s one best way of looking at organizational issues, or one academic discipline that contains all the insights.

We read a fair bit written by Mark Granovetter, a sociologist now at Stanford who must be one of the most frequently referenced of all organizational scholars. In 1973 Granovetter wrote "The Strength of Weak Ties" (SWT), a seminal article that’s been cited a jaw-dropping 5111 times according to Google Scholar.

Companies that rely heavily on innovation have always spent a great deal of time, money, and effort on ways to help knowledge workers interact better with their close colleagues. These companies obsess about office and lab layouts, trying to ensure that people flow past each other often and feel drawn to common work areas. They assemble cross-functional teams and try to make sure that these groups have enough of the right kinds of diversity (whatever that is). They hold brainstorming sessions and off-sites where coworkers can interact with the same set of colleagues, but differently.

Granovetters’ great insight in SWT and later work was that these activities help strengthen already strong ties, but that weak ties might actually be the more important ones for innovation and knowledge sharing. Strong ties and weak ties are exactly what they sound like. Strong ties between people arise from long-term, frequent, and sustained interactions; weak ties from infrequent and more casual ones. The ‘problem’ with strong ties is that if persons A and B have a strong tie, they’re also likely to be strongly tied to all members of each other’s networks. In other words, there’s likely to be a lot of overlap in their friendship circles.

This might be a good thing in many ways, but it’s bad news if A needs a piece of knowledge that she can’t find inside her own friendship circle. Because of the overlap, B’s circle is likely to be redundant with A’s, and so unhelpful to her. In other words, her tie to B does her little good in her search for knowledge. If A and C have a weak tie, however, many of C’s friends are likely to be strangers to A, and so are good resources as she looks to inform herself.

A tidy summary of SWT’s conclusion is that strong ties are unlikely to be bridges between networks, while weak ties are good bridges. Bridges help solve problems, gather information, and import unfamiliar ideas. They help get work done quicker and better. The ideal network for a knowledge worker probably consists of a core of strong ties and a large periphery of weak ones. Because weak ties by definition don’t require a lot of effort to maintain, there’s no reason not to form a lot of them (as long as they don’t come at the expense of strong ties).

Subsequent research has explored whether Granovetter’s hypotheses and conclusions apply within companies, and they appear to be quite robust. My former HBS colleague Morton Hansen, for example, found that weak ties helped product development groups accomplish projects faster. Hansen, Marie Louise Mors and Bjorn Lovas further showed that weak ties helped by reducing information search costs. And Daniel Levin and Rob Cross found that the benefits of weak ties were amplified if knowledge seekers trusted that information sources were competent in their fields.

The implication for SNS is obvious: Facebook and its peers should be highly valuable for businesses because they’re tools for increasing the density of weak ties within a company, as well as outside it. My Facebook friends are a large group of people from diverse backgrounds who have very little in common with each other.Furthermore, their profiles give me a decent way to evaluate their expertise. These online friends, in other words, are a large group of bridges to other networks. Facebook already provides me a few good ways to activate these bridges for my own purposes. I anticipate that enterprise SNS (whatever that turns out to be) will have many more. One experiment to watch in this area is A-space, an SNS established by the US Directorate of National Intelligence.

I also think that employees who blog behind the firewall are establishing something like weak ties with all of their colleagues. If decent search exists, any employee can find out if their blogging peers have sought-after knowledge or expertise. The ties in this instance are potential rather than actual, but they’re still still valuable in the way that all options are.

In fact, the concept of an option is a useful one for understanding the overall power of weak ties. An employee’s strong ties give her colleagues. Her weak ones open up options. Technologies that help weak ties proliferate therefore also provide options. Given how cheap they are, and how many options they bring, they seem like one of the best investments out there.

Hansen, M. T. (1999). "The Search-Transfer Problem: The Role of Weak Ties in Sharing Knowledge across Organization Subunits." Administrative Science Quarterly 44(1): 82-85.

Hansen, M. T., M. L. Mors, et al. (2005). "Knowledge Sharing in Organizations: Multiple Networks, Multiple Phases." The Academy of Management Journal 48(5): 776-793.

Levin, D. Z. and R. Cross (2004). "The Strength of Weak Ties You Can Trust: The Mediating Role of Trust in Effective Knowledge Transfer." Management Science 50(11): 1477-1490.