On Ties

The term social networking, like blog, has a fluffy connotation. Because its adoption began with young people through MySpace, many people assume that social networks are toys and time-sinks. Actually, they are correct on both accounts.

However, as working stiffs like yours truly and people who understand us immerse ourselves in social networks, new uses for these networks emerge. This has been the AppsLab mantra from Day 1. Understanding of New Web comes through using it; once you understand the principles, the application of them to X becomes easier, where X equals product or work or play, whatever.

If you use it (New Web), they (ideas) will come. Terrible, I know. Moving on.

Andrew “Enterprise 2.0” McAfee blogged recently about “The Ties that Find”. He references research done in the 70’s by Mark Granovetter in an article called “The Strength of Weak Ties“. Granovetter’s work, published in 1973, is eerily applicable to modern social networks. McAfee mentions he is cited over 5,000 times according to Google Scholar. If you have a block of time for interesting reading, check out “Social Networks and Group Formation“, which also leverages “The Strength of Weak Ties” over at Boxes and Arrows. A reader sent me this link. Fascinating stuff.

Granovetter’s findings around strong vs. weak ties have newfound proving grounds in social networks, especially inside companies.

Basically, strong ties are the people you hang with a lot and know really well. Weak ties are casual acquaintances. Frequent vs. infrequent. Granovetter’s theory is that because strong ties cause a lot of overlap (i.e. in a circle of friends, everyone knows each other), they can be less useful when seeking information not known to the group. So, if I don’t know something, my strong ties are likely to be in the dark too.

Weak ties require little effort and therefore, are easy to form and maintain. Sounds like a large percentage of my friends on Facebook and contacts in Connect. One happy side-effect is that because you’re not talking to them all day, reading the same stuff, and having the same experiences, your weak ties give you access to a larger set of information.

This theory has legs in a large enterprise. Anne blogs that weak ties are a great way to solve problems.

An informal social network includes ties that cut across the formal hierarchy and thus offer shortcut information finding and problem solving. If the employee has a way of searching across these ties, she might be more successful in a shorter time.

As an ex-Oraclete, Anne understands the difficulties of cross-divisional projects, and what she calls “social problem solving” is uniquely applicable to our experiences with Connect. In fact, one main goal for Connect at the outset was to help people identify responsibilities. Determining what someone actually does based on a title in the org chart is highly problematic.

As an example, a quick search in Connect tells me there are 51 people at Oracle with the same title I have, “Product Strategy Director”. Looking at my title alone tells you almost nothing about what I really do. So, when the org chart fails, how can I begin to solve a problem if I don’t know what people actually do?

For example, when I need hardware in a data center with access to the DMZ, where do I begin? Rich and Paul might have ideas, if they have tackled this bear in the past. If they don’t, I can turn to my other strong ties, most of whom are in Applications Development. Doubtful anyone would know, since Development environments are not on the DMZ (duh), and this isn’t a common problem to have for these people. I might stumble into the right contact eventually, but how much time will be lost?

Instead, use the social network. The weak ties can help you reach parts of the company/world that you don’t frequent, dramatically improving the time it takes to identify the right contact. A social network also helps engage the right person too. Simple things like seeing a picture make the interaction more human. You become more than a title and an email to the people in your network.

Email is very antiseptic, and people comment frequently that they love profile pictures. We are such a distributed company, that you might work with a person for a decade and never see her/him in person. Last year at OOW, for example, I met people from EMEA that I’ve know and worked with since 2001 for the very first time in person. Freaky.

Social problem solving, social apps, these are real benefits to social networks and have real value to companies. Stay tuned.




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