Thursday, March 31, 2011

The power of weak ties

Today I read an old sociology paper that has some very interesting insights that are remarkably relevant today. The paper is from 1983 and yet it predicts some of the benefits, challenges, and implications of the spread of social networks on the web. The basic premise is that our close friends (or close coworkers) tend to all know each other. This creates dense networks that tend to assimilate with each other. The benefits of diverse thinking (as I have blogged about previously) are lost.

But some people have weak ties to other groups. These weak ties can be either acquaintances of acquaintances (and therefore not very useful) or what he calls local bridging ties which connect groups that have complementary skills, knowledge, or other important attribute. Local bridging ties create many benefits for individuals, organizations, and societies.

Individuals benefit through upward mobility. Weak ties can help out with job searches, mobility, and developing extensive professional and social networks.

Organizations benefit because weak ties facilitate the diffusion of innovation, ideas, and tacit company practices. They loosen up cliques that can hurt morale and lower productivity. They allow companies to develop stronger links to other companies in the value chain. Weak ties can create a nice balance between specialized division of labor and interdisciplinary work and innovation.

For societies, weak ties allow subgroups to integrate without assimilating. They create macrosocial cohesion. It helps to diffuse things that are controversial (as illustrated by how fast dirty jokes and urban myths spread despite not being covered in the media).

I can see some recommendations coming out of this.

· Individuals should find and nurture weak ties that are bridging to higher status and diverse groups.

· Organizations should create a culture with dense clusters within departments and weak ties that provide local bridges between them. This maximizes the tradeoff between specialization and interdisciplinary innovation.

· Organizations/communities should develop/nurture several ways for individuals to establish weak bridging ties. This increases the chance they will develop naturally, which is important because you can’t effectively force weak ties on people in either context.

The paper also describes some benefits of strong ties and how the balance is important. But I will let you read the paper to get these.

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