Social Networks : How we can make Networks more Useful

We all use Networks to communicate instructions, ideas and to share knowledge. We have Networks of friends, career advisors, co-workers, clubs, teaching mentors etc. And experience suggests that it is Networks within an Enterprise that get things done rather than simple reliance on the organization chart. But, whilst, we all spend hours on web 2.0 sites, one wonders what we get as a result?


Dramatic progress is being made in understanding Networks by research into “Small Worlds” (we all may be within 6 degrees of separation of everyone else) and “Scale Free Networks” (represented by the Internet, the airline hub and spoke systems, the gene expression pathways in the body etc.). These imply ways of making Networks more robust, and to speed up communication within an Enterprise – and thus its innovative capability.


Perhaps even more importantly, Networks seem to have deep rules of operation which are independent of what they actually do. It is thus possible that we can separate organizational “functionality” (i.e. what its goals are) from “topology” (i.e. how it functions most efficiently).


A good way to think about networks that actually can help us get a result is to consider the “Community of Practice” (CoP), as originally defined by Etienne Wenger.


“A CoP is a group of individuals that share common concerns or passions about what they do but who are not formally or hierarchically linked. Etienne Wenger defined three building blocks:


  • The domain: A CoP is not merely a club of friends or a Network of connections between people. It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership implies a commitment to the domain, and a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people.
  • The community: In pursuing domain interests, members engage in joint activities and share information. Relationships emerge that enable mutual learning and creation of new knowledge.
  • The practice: A CoP is not merely a community of interest - people who like certain kinds of movies, for instance. Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, and ways of addressing recurring problems.”


Bryan and Joyce ("Mobilizing Minds", 2007) talk of the need to create "Formal Networks" to break through today's organizational complexities, hierarchies and "matrix mess" (the latter, my words not theirs). It seems however that they don't quite hit the spot on a few points, and in particular don’t fully reflect today’s understanding of network theory


Mick’s research suggests some extra steps we should take to could build to help make Networks more useful.

1. Purpose. Effective organizational Networks have a human purpose which must be pre-defined and then its outputs become both useful and measurable. This is of course not always the case with Networks studied in the scientific literature. Nor is it immediately obvious when defining Networks simply in terms of “roles” or “linkages”. Note, though, that this means that a purpose is defined, not a specific outcome in the "management by objectives" sense. And, in some cases, such as Procter & Gamble's "Connect and Develop" R&D approach, the overall purpose is clear, as is the request for input to solve specific scientific issues - but how the "network" actually behaves is not directly managed by P&G individuals. And see the comments below on weak links.

2. Nodal identity to drive innovation. The skills, knowledge, motivations, problems, geographic location, time linkages, goals and beliefs of every member in the Network are critical to how they interact. This goes well beyond a catalogue of job descriptions within an
Enterprise, or a catalogue of linkages between individuals (which many proponents of Social Network theory focus on - who is a node and who is a hub is less important, in my view, than what they do).

Identity demands a deep data based understanding of the characteristics of all Network members. Publicising these identities and proactively connecting “like” individuals will help form “affiliation clusters” from which useful ideas will emerge.

3. Trustworthiness. Within Networks, some members get to be known as experts or “authorities”. This concept raises issues about how we can trust their information. Why do we trust Google? Why do we trust experts? I think that the combination of the nodal identity of an authority (which is transparently available to all affiliation cluster members) and the actionability of the links within the cluster contribute to a Network’s “trustworthiness”.


The trustworthiness of an authority also relates to information flow – as a net exporter of information which is consistently and practically actionable.

4. Searchability to create new knowledge. This is critical in finding existing data, generating new knowledge and thus delivering on the purpose of the Network. Examples of the types of insight we may be seeking include Informational ( “Where are all the good Thai restaurants in town?”), Intellectual (“What can I learn from the local history”?), Actionable ( “How can I get better sales results in this country”?), Relational (“How can I work better with my local fellow employees?”), Judgmental (“How can I decide the real truth in the local politics”?), and Contextual (“How can I integrate the varied aspects of my life?”).

It is not necessary to predict an exact search path through a “Small World” Network – just to start it on the right trajectory. Dodds, Muhamed and
note that successful search is conducted primarily through weaker links, does not require highly connected “hubs” to succeed, and disproportionately relies on professional relationships. Thus new knowledge is often generated best from “weak links” (i.e. links outside of one’s normal and “strong” work group links, family etc.). And one must also remember the importance of "structural holes"...

5. Actionability. Towards the goal of designing Networks where something new actually happens as a result of their existence, we must focus on actionability. The links between members of the Network must be actionable - meaning that they have practical value in real interactions. This also implies that searchability occurs when a preponderance of links within an affiliation cluster are “actionable” (i.e. have useful value).


For example, I might know the Prime Minister of India because of my firm's investments in that country, but I doubt I could get him to write a book review on a social network text!

I hope this might spark a few comments and critiques.

© Copyright 2007 Mick Yates - All Rights reserved

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