Monday, March 14, 2011

User Profiles: Spanning Structural Holes


Mark Granovetter wrote the paper The Strength of Weak Ties in 1973. This is probably one of the most oft cited paper in the industry of sociology, education, psychology, sociometry, network analysis and other related fields and sub-fields that study human behavior. As far back as 1973, he spoke about how interaction in small groups aggregate to form large-scale patterns, in short, the theory of emergence that every complex system—organism or organization—display. His other notable research was on ties—the premise of this post. He claimed that strong ties—ties between close friends and colleagues—do not lead to problem-solving or import unfamiliar ideas. Each knows what the others also know or practice. Let’s see how this plays out in an organizational setting.    

What has Granovetter got to do with User Profiles and Structural Holes?

Scenario #1

Here’s a scenario. While hypothetical, I believe it is entirely plausible. Alex and Sam work in the same organization. They are based out of different countries but know each other having met once at the Away Day event.  Months have passed after that meeting. One day, Alex is suddenly required to work on a project that necessitates the use of a technology he is only vaguely familiar with. As he and the team rack their brains for solution, Alex suddenly recalls Sam, whom he had met all those months back. Sam had mentioned this as one of his key areas of interest. Presto! Maybe, Sam can help…And indeed, Sam can! You can probably predict the rest now. 

Study the above image for a second. You can see that because Alex has a weak tie (they are acquaintances who met only once) with Sam, both Alex’s and Sam’s group of close ties become potential ties for each other. They can become aware of the existence of the other and reach out for help when needed due to the connection between Sam and Alex. The possibilities of converting these potential ties into actual ones reap tremendous benefits for an organization.

Granovetter also had an interesting claim that I have paraphrased here: Weak ties are not merely trivial acquaintance ties but rather a crucial bridge between two clumps of close friends (strong ties). Bridges help to solve problems, gather information and import unfamiliar ideas. 

 

Scenario #2

The scenario remains the same as above. The only difference in this case is that Alex and Sam did not meet at the Away Day. They don’t know about the existence of the other. Alex and the team rack their brains to come up with a solution. The proposal must be sent out within a week. They send out a mail requesting for help. But with no specific person to direct the mail to, they are unsure about the response. This is a classic case of a structural hole. Ronald Burt, in his book Structural Holes (1992), defines it “as a separation between non-redundant contacts”. 

Of course, real-world situations are always much more complex, with multiple cause-and-effect relationships playing out in tandem. But my point is not complexity in this post but the importance of spanning structural holes to help an organization become more responsive, adaptive, and innovative. 

Let’s carry on with the above scenario for a bit. How can we ensure that Alex and Sam (and others like them) do not remain unaware of each other’s existence? This unawareness does not bode well for an organization. A huge amount of organizational knowledge and innovation are lost because we fail to span structural holes or leave it to chance. Leaving something as crucial as this to chance meetings at social events can no longer be an option if organizations want to remain sustainable. 

Enterprise Collaboration Platforms and User Profiles

Fast forward to the 21st Century! An increasing number of organizations are distributed across regions and countries. The probability of disconnect is high. Hand in hand with this phenomenon is the massive growth of information, rapid-fire pace of change, and complexities in work situations that defy all known practices— best or good—irrespective. All of these necessitate an increasing amount of collaboration and tapping into the collective knowledge of an organization. This means spanning structural holes—consciously and deliberately—as an organizational strategy to face the challenges of the 21st Century.

Many forward looking organizations have already embraced the idea of social business (I will leave that for another post) and invested in high-potential enterprise collaboration and learning platforms. What makes these platforms so powerful is the ability to find each other, locate expertise at the point of need and the opportunities for serendipitous learning. One of the key features such platforms offer is User Profiles. While this may seem totally innocuous and negligible, it is not. 

User profiles help to bridge structural holes. Let’s go back to Alex. Imagine that Alex never met Sam, and he (Alex) is stuck in this dilemma of writing a proposal with a looming deadline on something he is clueless about. He can search for the specific expertise on an enterprise platform—and if the expertise exists in the organization***—the profile of the person who is tagged with the expertise or has mentioned it as one of her/his areas of knowledge will show up. In this case, let’s assume Sam. Without having ever met Sam, Alex has one concrete person he can immediately reach out to. In the process of the search, Alex may also find documents or reports on the topic. It is an easy matter to check who created those, and reach out to those folks as well. 

It is fairly easy to see how the User Profiles feature of an enterprise platform is a powerful tool for locating potential ties that need to be converted into actual ones to keep the organizational knowledge flowing and maintain that sustainable edge. Filling out one’s user profile in as much detail as possible thus serves the organization and the individual well. Who doesn’t want to be recognized as an expert? Who doesn’t want to reach out and extend help to those who need it? 

***In case, the expertise does not exist, it’s time to leverage one’s personal learning network. Bring knowledge in from the outside.  That calls for another post.

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