On the ties that don’t bind

This article from the Australian Financial Review(subscription required) discusses a recent book by human resource management academic, Lynda Gratton, on the power of weak ties in the network. Having read Gratton’s Living strategy, I was intrigued to learn more about the new book, Hot spots, albeit written for a more mass market audience.

Weak ties are people who are generally acquaintances or people you bump into occasionally. They are not good friends but may be friends of friends. Granovetter’s 1973 article was one of the first to examine weak ties and much work has been done since refining the concept in relation to a range of networks. One of the first papers I read on the topic was Hansen’s 1999 paper on weak ties in knowledge transfer in organisations. Over the past 10-15 years there has been a far greater interest in discovering and mapping social networks, often using social network analysis (SNA) and sensemaking software.

The gist of the new Gratton book is that “innovation comes from people who cross boundaries (and) talk to people in all areas of the business and outside and bring foreign ideas into their own work”. Gratton rightly points out that most organisations don’t even realise the capacity and power of potential networks inside their own organisation – an untapped and relatively inexpensive resource.

At the individual level, people need to take up the challenge of boundary spanning – the capacity to move outside the central node of friendships and social contacts into the more ambiguous and uncertain domain where they don’t really know people very well. With some curiosity and interest, these weak ties will form.

At the organisational level, there is often the fear that individuals need permission to meet and discuss issues outside their immediate working relationships. An open and collegiate workplace culture certainly helps dispel such fears, but where this culture doesn’t exist, encouraging co-operation and boundary spanning from senior management is a good start.

One example of boundary spanning inside an organisation can occur naturally. A new employee often brings new insights and ideas to a new organisation because they have not been corralled into like-minded teams inside the organisation. Once people become ensconced with people of similar ideas and contexts, the opportunity for innovative ideas tends to break down. As the article today says: “in order to get something unusual, you need to put people together who are different from each other”.

I pretty much agree that new thinking and new ways of looking at problems and opportunities are enhanced by diverse teams and weak ties. I also happen to be a fan of networks generally, believing much can be done by tapping the power of both information and social networks.

However, at my own new workplace, I must also become aware of the environmental context in which people are working. Plenty of fresh ideas are wonderful, and I like to think that I have a few ideas myself, but a scatter-gun approach may not be the most effective initial strategy. Nevertheless, I think it is still important to consider those fresh ideas within the existing workplace framework, as well as to frame those fresh ideas into new and potential workplace frameworks.

Certainly, as the new boy on the block, I am already forming loose ties across the organisation. I can have plenty of conversations within this organisational context, enabling a better understanding of the current workplace environment, while at the same time working through and generating new ideas for the future.

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4 responses to “On the ties that don’t bind

  1. Pingback: Library clips :: Enterprise blog channels for communications :: May :: 2008

  2. It seems to me a potential irony, though, that it is often (if not only) in the context of tightly-woven groups that some kind of fundamental organization change and — more importantly — organizational experimentation can take place. In very loosely-tied organizations (think of a group of volunteers working at an event for several days) it’s not uncommon to find one group doing a job with a great deal of innovation, and other groups being much less effective. Change, evolution has less meaning in those circumstances than a kind of proximity (perhaps?).

    Have you had a look at some of Douglas Engelbart’s papers over at http://www.bootstrap.org ? Some of what you have written here is a little parallel to his work.

    I myself am doing work on using RSS as a tool that can blend information management and collaboration. I’ve developed something I call Xenos as a first step. Essentially it enables the creation of “meta” RSS feeds, that are a first step at building a shared information community. You can check out the beta of the software at http://www.metanews.biz . Just click on the big “X”.

  3. Scott,

    Proximity is an interesting term – I like it. Proximity is generally important in developing and deepening relationships (also related to propinquity, as social psychologist Michael Argyle would argue).

    As you say, much is made of fundamental change (or otherwise) of closely interwoven groups. You are right to suggest that different levels of effectiveness occur in loosely-knit groups but I think that is because not all loose-ties will impact the same way on an individual. The impact of a loose tie is likely to be random and it is this randomness that makes it effective – the fact that in your normal day you may not come across this person with those particular insights or views or observations.

    I haven’t read Engelbart I will investigate.

    Your RSS work sounds interesting and is an area of interest to me. I will check it out.

  4. Pingback: Library clips :: The emergence of Serendipity 2.0 and Innovation 2.0 :: October :: 2008

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