April 24, 2011
social networking

You are the Collective Wisdom of both Strong & Weak Ties

I’m not known to normally pick a fight with someone, but if I see or read something that seems somewhat incongruent to a combination of my beliefs and formal research, well, I tend to stick myself into the fray.

See Kirkpatrick posts one and two for both comedic relief and testament to the aforementioned.

Jennifer Sertl seems like a talented person. She’s an author, runs a blog, has her own company, and generally looks to be more than successful in her career.

I can’t recall when I started following her on Twitter, however, during the week of April 18 whilst taking an autodidactic break from the world of corporate culture change, I happened upon a tweet of hers and consequently retweeted a response of disagreement:

Before I spit out a vast array of research, I first must state personally that if I held the collective wisdom of the ten people I spend the most time with (without naming names) I don’t think I’d be where I am today in terms of my career, my family, or my intelligence level. (for better or worse on the latter point of course)

I am the result of both strong and weak ties. I may not be the perfect specimen; however, I am a pretty solid blueprint. My thirst for both deep and (perhaps) shallow relationships permits me the opportunity to quench my nauseating thirst for knowledge, information, ideas and opportunities.

I am nothing without both sets of ties.

Even recently, I have tapped into both strong and weak ties for life changing personal decisions, such as enrolling in a PhD as well as moving cities with the family.

At work, it’s my weak ties that have continuously helped me over the years gain an advantage on the rollout of projects, the acquisition of feedback before execution (think Collaboration Curve), and the attainment of both tacit and explicit knowledge to achieve business results.

Whether for personal or business situations, if I relied solely on any one group of ten individuals for input, knowledge, and decisions, I quite frankly would be a much lesser leader; a much lesser person.

I’d be a muppet.

The origin of research concerning ‘weak ties’ itself can be pinpointed to Mark Granovetter in 1973 via The Strength of Weak Ties that was published in The American Journal of Sociology. One line sticks out for me in particular:

It follows, then, that individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends.

Although one cannot simply lift one line, yell ‘presto’ and expect the reader to comply with yours truly, it does set the stage rather nicely.

When Levin and Cross analyzed ‘trust’ in their studies concerning weak ties, they noted the following:

As predicted, the direct effect of strong ties on the receipt of useful knowledge was less than that of weak ties once we controlled for perceived trustworthiness. That is, we see a switch from the overall benefit of strong ties before controlling for perceived trustworthiness to the benefit of weak ties after controlling for perceived trustworthiness. We found that knowledge received from strong ties still positively contributed to project outcomes, but knowledge received from weak ties contributed even more positively.

The Strength of Weak Ties You Can Trust: The Mediating Role of Trust in Effective Knowledge Transfer; Levin, Daniel Z.; Cross, Rob. Management Science, Nov2004, Vol. 50 Issue 11, p1477-1490

Through some ground-breaking research related to project teams, Lecoutre and Lievre found that projects actually became more successful when weak ties were added to the mix versus a project team consisting of solely strong ties:

Both tie types have a role to play: strong ties give moral and emotional support, help build sense of identity, and provide an arena for mutual confiding, including on strategic issues; weak ties, though, offer the opportunity to extend beyond well-worn social paths to gain access to new information that you would not normally have spontaneously found in your “home” social world.

Mobilizing social networks beyond project team frontiers: The case of polar expeditions; Lecoutre, Marc; Lièvre, Pascal. Project Management Journal, Jun2010, Vol. 41 Issue 3, p57-68

Of course, there is the very influential study at Bell Labs put forward by Kelley and Caplan that indicated high performing workers who had a large network of both strong and weak ties, got answers quicker, and ultimately had more success in their assignments and objectives:

For example, a middle performer at Bell Labs talked about being stumped by a technical problem. He painstakingly called various technical gurus and then waited, wasting valuable time while calls went unreturned and e-mail messages unanswered. Star performers, however, rarely face such situations because they do the work of building reliable networks before they actually need them. When they call someone for advice, stars almost always get a faster answer.

How Bell Labs creates star performers: Robert Kelley and Janet Caplan, Harvard Business Review (July-August 1993), pp. 128-139

In 2008, Fliaster and Spiess surmised the following en route to proving the cost benefit of having both strong and weak ties:

The over-dominance of strong ties can have a detrimental effect on innovation activities and, speaking more generally, on work performance of knowledge workers. In strong ties, researchers have found a strong educational, occupational, and behavioral homophily (McPherson et al. (2001)). In the long term, this homophilous set of ties, accompanied by the relational inertia (Gargiulo and Benassi (1999)), can negatively affect knowledge workers.

KNOWLEDGE MOBILIZATION THROUGH SOCIAL TIES: THE COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS; Fliaster, Alexander; Spiess, Josef. Schmalenbach Business Review (SBR), Jan2008, Vol. 60 Issue 1, p99-117

And lastly, I leave you with the words of Hagel, Seely and Davison:

The edges of our social networks represent the weak ties that connect us to people who can provide us with access to new insights, experiences, and capabilities that provoke us to improve our own game.

Leadership Ecosystem; Hagel III, John; Brown, John Seely; Davison, Lang. Leadership Excellence, Jul2010, Vol. 27 Issue 7, p12-13

In summary, this should not be construed as an attack against Jennifer. In fact, I’d consider Jennifer to be a part of my ‘weak ties’ network helping me to further enhance my collective wisdom.

I hope she feels the same.

I hope you do as well.

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