The Ties that Find

by Andrew McAfee on October 1, 2007

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.

  • http://www.susanitsa.wordpress.com Susan Scrupski

    Hi Andy. More along these lines for your readers over at the Boxes and Arrows blog from Shiv Singh. http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/social-networks

    Weakly,
    Susan

  • http://www.shoptalkmarketing.blogspot.com John Caddell

    Now Granovetter’s article has 5112 citations:-) I cited it as well in a post last year.

    At any rate, when I worked in sales engineering for EDS, my most powerful tool was my Rolodex. EDS was/is a highly distributed organization, with industry and technical skills scattered across the globe.

    Knowing how to reach the right person with one phone call, or two at the most (calling someone who knows the right person) was a significant asset.

    Social software is in my mind an electronic, interactive, realtime Rolodex. It’s got to be a great tool for any company that uses its employees’ intellect.

    And that should be all of them, shouldn’t it?

    Regards, John

  • http://cathexis.typepad.com Catherine Shinners

    Hi Andrew,
    One of those Granovetter citations might be found in an excellent new book published by Yale Univ. Press – The Collaborative Enterprise by Charles Heckscher, postulating the the book’s title as the next movement in organizational models.

    It has seemed to me, in my own product work in the last few years that “teams” are a primary productivity unit, and collaborative technologies, including social networking tools, sustain collaboration across traditional organizational boundaries. That’s why I like Heckscher’s notion of extended collaboration, and as he says…”the enterprise is not the same as the firm.”

    Facebook is fine, but I actually think companies like ConnectBeam are approximately your S L A T E S notion, combining social networking and search connection/awareness.

    The idea of weak ties is akin to the notion of people in the social network that function as hubs and maintain the strong ties, and those, on the periphery, perhaps, that function as connectors to other networks.

    I still think your challenge from Enterprise 2.0 is valid vis a vis case studies.

    Best from the West (Coast)
    Catherine

  • http://www.cordin8.com Brad Jackson

    I have been working with groupware technology for nearly 25 years–yikes! :) A groupware experiment we did at Texaco in the early 90s was called “Coffee Bar Talk” using a threaded-discussion style forum. It’s purpose was two-fold: 1) provide a ‘fun’ way to introduce a particular groupware technology, and 2) to create a virtual ‘coffee bar’ where people could ‘bump’ into each other informally and accidentally(across different departments, disciplines) so that they might meet people whom they would not have otherwise with the possibility that it might lead to a useful connection at a future point.

    It survived two years — an eternity in the 1990s — before succumbing to a management perception of a ‘waste of employee’s time’.

    If you’re interested, I just completed a paper, “cOrdin8 Release 2: The Organizational Operating System” which you can download at http://www.cordin8.com. It includes other groupware exploration that we did, including Impact of Group Decision Support Systems on Total Quality Management (TQM) teams and Virtual Town Meetings.

    Brad

  • Meng Yang

    Social networking is about connecting with weak ties — people you don’t know very well — , but also is about sharing information among your strong ties — your teammates, your colleagues etc. Some use cases would be, show me what my teammates are reading in their Feed reader, writing in their blogs, or bookmarking in delicious or dogear, etc.

    I think these two are equally important.

  • http://rexsthoughtspot.blogspot.com Rex Lee

    Thanks for the post Andrew. I suspect those that may have been unsatisfied with your previous responses to the ROI question, will also find it difficult to leverage the wealth of excellent research in social networking in a “corporate” setting. We’ve been using a combination of anecdotal case studies and internal piloting to demonstrate the value of social mediums but it’s definately hard work.

  • Lars Haugstad

    I believe social networks can stratify information based on social characteristics that will make relevant information more readily accessible. Facebook is on the one extreme, providing little practical knowledge except for what your friends are up to (until the more recent introduction of applications), and Wikipedia is on the other – where it is the information that is important, and it is irrelevant who you are. Combine the two, and you can have relevant information based on who you are and who you know, and the social dashboard of facebook can provide up-to-date news relevant to you and your network. To me, this combination would be the ideal solution for enterprises looking at employing this technology.

    As for weak links, I could not agree more. Rumors are that Facebook will provide functionality for resume searching and other features to located competence. One may wonder what LinkedIn is planning to do about all of this. One thing is for sure, they are a few steps behind technologically.

  • http://www.BizTechTalk.com Dan Keldsen

    Andrew – funny to have randomly landed on this exact post, after just coming back from lunch with a Boston-area woman I’d met via LinkedIn, and who you know… Nancy Loderick, VP of Network Partnerships at Downtown Women’s Club (a non-profit networking association for businesswomen).

    We were discussing the dynamics of blogging, secrecy vs. transparency and the space-between, and a fair amount of time on the randomness of connections in a social networking context. Talked about Mark’s work in weak ties vs strong ties, and the social science research that has happened since.

    While Mark’s work is great, as a layman in this world, I found Six Degrees by Duncan Watts, Linked by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and Nexus by Mark Buchanan to be both enlightening and approachable (honestly, if network theory and graph theory had been shown to me before I went to Berklee College of Music, I might’ve had an entirely different career path).

    Glad to hear you are continuing to expand the Enterprise 2.0 story on the social networking front.

    From the days of consulting and analysis (research) work I’ve been involved with on Knowledge Management and the splinter known as Expertise Location, is exactly what you’re describing on solidifying strong ties and creating a proliferation of weak ties, both within and without (ok, outside, but I like the play on words) the organization.

    FYI – the research we’re embarking on as I type into Enterprise 2.0 will definitely be examining social networking and social network analysis specifically. Really interesting potential there. Nice ties to search and find implications, value creation, cost reduction, the gamut.

    Cheers,
    Dan

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  • http://iworld.proweblog.com Susan

    I believe social network is not just social networking, but in fact exposing one’s personal information, personal thoughts and beliefs more vigourously than sharing one’s thoughts and ideas and information on one’s own blog.

    On your blog, you can limit or disable RSS feeds that your blog delivers to the outer world. You can limit the content display to different groups of people. Your blog is your own blog, not as in case of social networking platforms. There, its the 3rd part that owns all your information, and it’s the members of the platform owned by the 3rd party that even the 3rd party isn’t aware of… that have full access to your personal information, such as what’s your overall background and who your friends are and what you do!

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    I think there is more to these social networks. For personal it gives us more chance to socialize with other poeple as well as friends. Now, just like blogging, it also gives us chance to read other blog just like this one, very informative and to get to know other blogger and to share as well.

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    Social networking is about connecting with weak ties — people you don�t know very well — , but also is about sharing information among your strong ties — your teammates, your colleagues etc. Some use cases would be, show me what my teammates are reading in their Feed reader, writing in their blogs, or bookmarking in delicious or dogear, etc.

    I think these two are equally important.

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    Social networking is about connecting with weak ties — people you donÂ’t know very well — , but also is about sharing information among your strong ties — your teammates, your colleagues etc. Some use cases would be, show me what my teammates are reading in their Feed reader, writing in their blogs, or bookmarking in delicious or dogear, etc.

    I think these two are equally important.

  • http://andrewmcafee.org/blog/?p=654 Is craigslist or eHarmony the Right Model for Enterprise 2.0? : Andrew McAfee’s Blog

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  • Ravi Verma

    I have also the same opinion 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.

    Regards,
    Ravi Verma
    __________

    Cheap Neckties

  • pixbook

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    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.

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  • http://andrewmcafee.org/2010/12/mcafee-dunbar-friends-weak-ties/ We Get By with a Little Help From Our Friends. And Acquaintances.

    [...] ones are vital. If Mark Granovetter‘s ideas about the strength of weak ties are right (and they are), then people we don’t know all that well are hugely valuable in our work. They’re [...]

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