Why Social Networks in the Workplace Really Matter

By Rob McNair

Whilst the linear way we structured organizations and their flow of communications in the past (hierarchies, tree structures) has served a purpose, we now live in a world where technology has democratized mass communication. Not only has technology adapted how we communicate; it’s altered the developed world’s workplace. Technology now takes place of even the most menial mechanical tasks, leading to a knowledge/information economy that’s largely based on the cognitive performance of its participants. It’s important to understand how businesses must adapt to take advantage of the different ways it’s affecting us.

Networks are causing us to take a fresh look at, amongst other things, innovation and productivity, two unarguably important factors of a competitive organization. The fact is that top-down hierarchies are no longer producing the most innovative and inspired work, but rather communities of freely collaborative individuals uninfluenced by leadership. Wikipedia, Linux and Perl are all examples of vastly innovative achievements made possible by open, networked communications. For businesses to exist, a network is vital. For it to prosper, it’s important to understand how the structure of these networks influences the behavior of the individuals within it.

Peter Shankman argues that the strength of your network determined only by the weakest person in it, arguing that

“Your network is one of the most valuable professional and personal tools you have. Don’t cheapen it. Don’t weaken it. Don’t let it die, over-saturated with people who don’t matter to you, and to whom you don’t matter.”

Based on his assumption, we must rid our lifes of people who yet to prove themselves as a valuable asset. His conclusion is based on the fact that these types of connections are ridding is of the most valuable asset we have as humans in and out of the work place: Time.

The problem with Shankman’s assumption, which I must state is based on a pool side observation whilst holidaying in Italy, is that for the last 30 + years it’s been mainstream in academic knowledge that weak ties aren’t only important, they’re VITAL.

Don’t take my word for this. Mark S. Granovetter published a seminal paper in 1973 titled ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, which concludes:

…your weak ties tend to be people who are not so intimately embedded in your social network and the consequence [is] that your weak ties are more likely to know people and things that you don’t already know. So, your strong ties know many of the people you already know. They can’t really connect you to anyone you don’t know. Your weak ties are more likely to be able to do that.

(Summary courtesy of Duncan Watts ,via Mat Morrison)

Worried our thinking hasn’t progressed since then? MIT Scientist Andrew McAfee made the following statement in 2012:

There is a huge amount of work in sociology, really beautiful work, that shows, especially if you want innovation and novelty, or introductions to other social networks that your weak ties are a better place to go than your strong ties. Your weak-tie network is an extremely valuable thing for you.

So, for the past 30 years it’s been academic knowledge that building networks of people whom we’re not so closely related to is beneficial. This is of course before the introduction of freely available technologies that allowed us to manage these networks at a remarkable efficiency.

Moral of the story? Weak ties provide you with a bridge to knowledge you would otherwise be far away from. Your business should be structured to take advantage of, not diminish, the effects of networks. And if you aren’t taking the effort to understand them at a fundamental level, you’ll overlook some of their most important characteristics.

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This post was written by Rob McNair

Rob has experience advising some of the worlds most iconic brands. He thrives on helping improving social media knowledge within organisations with the ultimate goal of making theirs brands more social, transparent and accountable.