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Friday, August 21, 2009

Social Networks and the Making Ideas Happen in Large Enterprises – My Mother’s Recipe

My mother is an author - a poetess and story writer. She also has been a teacher. Till recently I was unaware of the method, the process or technique that has helped her find stories and characters for her writings. She has this remarkable ability to make friends with people – new acquaintances, strangers, seniors, young people – it doesn’t matter. She can connect with everyone. More surprisingly I have seen most people connect with her as well. I have always wondered how when she meets someone for the first time, she easily gets into knowing where from the person is, what does the person do, etc. Besides a genuine interest in people, one common method that invariably helps her to connect, is to mention someone’s name who or whose acquaintance has some connection to the new person she is talking to. There is a continuous search in her mind to connect the new person with someone whom she already knows. It is remarkable to see her confidence in knowing that she will find someone whom she is already connected to and who in turn is connected to the new person.

Till recently what I did not know is the fact that she naturally understands the way we connect with each other. She knows we are all connected to each other. It is after all a small world that we have. All of us are actually connected to each other through just six hops or six degrees only. The recent social networks research gives insights into hitherto unexplained observations.


The Small World, Six Degrees and Tipping Points

In mid-sixties Stanley Milgram, a social psychologist teaching at Harvard, with a reputation of doing original experiments, conducted an innocuous experiment which by his standards was rather boring to say the least. He asked 160 volunteers to send a letter to his stockbroker friend in Boston. The only condition was to send the letters not directly to the stockbroker but to their own friends, whom the volunteers think are most likely to know the stockbroker. Each of the friends was asked to send this further in the same manner.

Surprisingly, the letters arrived to the stock broker in an average six-hops or six-degrees. This led to the notion of six-degrees and of small world – that all of us are connected to each other by six intermediate connections. We all are connected to a small subset of people, which is true. It is also a fact that each of our connections is not mutually exclusive. They connect with each other as well. In effect, our connections are clustered. This leads to a problem, world can’t be both – a small world and a clustered one.

Despite being clustered in our own links, we connect with other such clusters through random, long-range, infrequent, and weak ties. The sociologist Mark Granovetter in his now classic paper of 1973 titled Strength of Weak Ties showed that effective social coordination happens through the presence of occasional weak ties between individuals and not through densely interlocking strong ties.

The small world, weak ties and network effects were looked at from a different perspective by Malcolm Gladwell. In his book that introduced Tipping Point to the mainstream language, Gladwell seeks to explain social epidemics or sudden and often chaotic changes from one state to another. The tipping point refers to the moment when something unusual becomes common.

According to Gladwell, three types of actors combine to create idea tipping points. Connectors are those with wide social circles. Mavens are knowledgeable people. Salesmen are charismatic people with powerful negotiation skills. They exert soft influence rather than forceful power. Gladwell says besides the few people – mavens, connectors and salesmen - there are two other factors that play an important role in idea tipping. These are Stickiness - ideas or products found attractive or interesting by others will grow exponentially for some time and The Power of Context - human behavior is strongly influenced by external variables of context.

Despite the work of Milgram, Granovetter and tipping point framework offered by Gladwell, the social networks remained more of a curiosity rather than serious field to pursue. It was only the research work of Duncan Watts that has brought the small world and clustered networks together with a mathematical recipe to design a social network which combines the randomness needed for small world and order needed for clustering.

Large enterprises are characterized by large social networks. We need to build a framework for making ideas happen in the social networks of large enterprises. After all, our most important world is the world of connections at our work place. How to design an enterprise based on the profound results of the recent groundbreaking research from social networks? May be my MOTHER’s RECIPE is the key!

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