Allow me a quick personal anecdote. When I was 16, everyone in my school had to do two weeks work experience and most of my friends got their parents to sort them out with interesting placements. However much to my annoyance at the time, my dad steadfastly refused on some ambiguous – to me at least – moral grounds (something about not propping up ‘old boys networks’, standing on my own two feet etc – you know the kind of thing). Anyway, I was left to the mercy of our school geography teacher/careers adviser, who sorted me out with a placement at a solicitors office, despite never having expressed any interest in law. Needless to say it wasn’t the most stimulating of experiences yet I did end up reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance, in between ploughing through divorce papers, so it wasn’t completely wasted.
“Networking is just one letter away from not working.” Chris Powell
Despite admiring my dad’s meritocratic principals, and a certain get up and go spirit it may have instilled in me, I think the world has changed profoundly in the last 20 years due to the web, so that I think it’s now possible for reputation and ability to be broadly aligned in a way that wasn’t the case a generation ago. Therefore, this post is an attempt to encapsulate what we’ve learned about networks, and how we use them. And even though I’ve blogged about some of these themes previously, I wanted to capture as much as I can in one place with a hope that it might spark some thoughts and discussion.
Strong Ties and the Dunbar Number
The Oxford based sociologist Robin Dunbar has studied all kinds of communities from all over the world and concluded that we have an upper limit to the number of strong social connections we can maintain at any point in time. This number is approximately 150 and is now known as the Dunbar number. These ‘strong ties’ usually tend to be friends, family and close colleagues. And at it’s most basic, for communities smaller than about 150, everyone tends to know everybody (to some degree at least) which means stuff gets done. Whereas for larger communities we tend not to remember everyone’s name, or what they do, so in an organisational context this leads to the sense of ‘a bunch of people over there who we don’t know what they do’ which can be divisive and unproductive.
Dunbar’s work has been so influential that organisations such as Gortex use it as an organising principal in their business. I’m told that in Gortex, when a business unit grows beyond 150 people, they break it up into 2 smaller units as this is more efficient. On a personal note, this was made real for me in my last company (with about 100 people) where it really was possible to make something happen by walking around the office and chatting to people, in a way I hadn’t experience previously when working for larger organisations.
Whilst Dunbar’s work is fascinating and highly influential, I can’t help but feel that Robin Dunbar hasn’t quite grasped the impact of the web and social networks yet. In an article for the RSA last year, he stated that “Social Networking sites [such as Facebook, twitter…] are very good for slowing down the rate at which relationships decay.” but went on to argue that they aren’t good at forming new relationships. However I profoundly disagree with this statement based on personal and professional experience of using social media to forge all kinds of new relationships and opportunities. Which brings us to Gravenotter and the more controversial area of Weak Ties.
Weak Ties and Innovation Capacity
In 1973, a US based sociologist Mark Gravenotter developed a theory on the spread of information in social networks known as “The Strength of Weak Ties”. There seems to be some debate as to the upper limit of Weak Ties that people can maintain, and there almost certainly is one, but it’s certainly in the 1000’s so for purposes of this article, essentially infinite. These are relationships with friends of friends, people we know by reputation, or people we only see very infrequently (and in my case often forget their names). In the past we were ill equipped to manage our weak ties however with the rise of social networks we have in many ways the perfect tool to build and maintain many more relationships with people we don’t know well.
Building upon this, Ron Burt (and of course many others) have looked at the impact of our weak ties and concluded that there is a correlation between the size and diversity of our weak ties and our innovation capacity. In other words, the more people we know, and the greater their diversity, the more likely we are to be innovative. This has been demonstrated powerfully in some studies of the social networks in two very large organisations. Broadly, Burt and his team mapped the social networks of employees in – one an investment bank and the other a large defence company – and in both cases the the larger and more diverse their social networks, the more they earn, the better they are perceived as innovators by their bosses etc. This is quite startling in many ways but intuitively feels right to me. If all your friends know each other then what tends to happen is you all recycle the same information (the same jokes, the same facts etc), whereas the more people you know from different backgrounds you get exposed to more and different information, and this has a direct correlation with your pay, bonus and innovation capacity.
“You don’t own your reputation. It lives and breathes in those that interact with you.” Ron Burt
Burt goes on to argue that open networks create bandwidth not echo. In other words, closed networks create exaggerated opinions or reputations, whereas open networks create innovation capacity. And your reputation is not your property. You can’t control it, only influence it directly, through the stories other people tell about you. And because the internet is written in ink not in pencil (i.e. is a much more permanent record) I like to think that this means that we all need to behave more responsibly because our collective memory is being written in real time.
For instance, when I googled the name of a former boss of mine, the top search result on Google was an Australian dating website (he used to live there) called ‘Dontdatehim.com’ which described in glorious technicolour why he was not worth dating, which amused me greatly as I didn’t particularly like him, but that’s another story. Needless to say we are all googled to a greater or lesser extent and we want to make sure those first results don’t return ‘red flags’, as in his case, and the only way to influence that is to behave responsibly.
Conversations first, then relationships, then transactions
I believe the one and only rule of networks could be summarised as ‘Conversations first, then relationships, then transactions’. I’ve blogged about this before (here) and other people seem to have run with it more that I have (notably Viv McWaters), but I’m a convert to the idea that innovation today is much more like playing Poker rather than Chess. In other words it’s a numbers game – whereby you have lots of conversations, of which some will become relationships, and some of those become transactions. This process cannot be reversed, without breaking some fairly fundamental social norms, and can seldom be predicted. If you knew exactly where a conversation was leading then it wouldn’t be a conversation. And I’m inspired by work by the RAND corporate and others on distributed networks.
The image below contains 47 dots connected in three completely different ways. One on the left is total centralised, and is similar to the transport infrastructure in the UK (everywhere is well connected to London, but try getting from Manchester to Nottingham on a Tuesday morning and you can pretty much forget the rest of your day) and the one of the right is distributed and similar to the way the internet is structured. In fact, I’m told that the only phones that worked around the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks where the VOIP ones (Internet Telephony) as there were multiple paths for the signals to travel. And if the world increasingly works primarily through distributed networks (on the right) why are most organisations and institutions still structured more like the centralised network on the left?
Trust and Hierarchies
The glue that makes networks work, is Trust. Trust takes time to be earned but can be eroded very quickly. Karen Stephenson, an expert in social networks from the University of Rotterdam, makes the point that Hierarchies and Netorks are the two dominant forms of organisation within and across networks, however one is very visible (the org chart on your intranet is one manifestation) however the invisible networks and potentially more powerful at any point in time. And if you are working across organisations, and let’s face it all the most interesting problems fall outside of the remit of even the largest of organisations, then it’s harder to resort to the hierarchy to make decisions and get stuff done. Rather, decision making happens much more through building consensus, and through trust.
“Trust is the glue that holds the network together, which at any point in time is more powerful than transactions and authority” Karen Stepheson
The 90:9:1 Rule
Duncan Watts, now at Yahoo, has done a whole series of fascinating experiments around networks which I won’t describe in detail, but his work and books are definitely worth checking out. One thing that has cropped up again and again in all sorts of circumstances is the 90:9:1 rule – otherwise referred to as the participation inequality – which I believe is actually attributed to Jakob Nielsen. Namely, for any community of 100 people, there is approximately 1% who are lead users or extremely creative or innovative, usually through awareness of some unmet need, and a larger minority of approximately 9% who are synthesisers who package up the learning of the top 1% and make it accessible to all. For instance, for every person who uploads a video clip on You Tube, there are approximately 9 who will comment, or vote, and on average 90 people who simply consume it. A similar breakdown occurs on Wikipedia and other online communities. And we’ve had our own reinforcement of this ‘theory’ in projects we’ve done with EON and Virgin where approximately 1% of the communities we’ve build/worked with have been most engaged/active and creative.
Personally, I would put myself primarily in the ‘synthesisers’ category, and without wishing to be ‘too meta’ this post is intended to be exactly that – synthesising other peoples work to hopefully make sense of it for a wider audience. And the question we often like to ask, is ‘Who is your top 1% and what motivates them’. This is interesting because in somecases your top 1% is very visible (for Virgin Atlantic it was their frequent business travellers i.e. customers who use the product/service the most) but in other cases they are much harder to find (for EON is was often customers who use the least of the product/service i.e. the most energy efficient). And in terms of what motivates them, it is almost never money initially, rather an awareness of a particular unmet need which they feel compelled or motivated to do something about. I just want to be clear that money is important, but tends to be a secondary driver.
How I networks and how they use me
At 100%Open we run several networks including a professional network called the Union where we bring senior innovation professionals together once a quarter for an evening event and we use informal techniques such as Pecha Kucha (short pitches of a particular need or opportunity). This is a free event, though we keep it reasonably close knit to peers.
In terms of social media, on a personal/professional level, here is roughly how I use them now:
Twitter – I love twitter – it’s my favourite place to hang out online. I use it to follow anybody (currently about 1500 people) who are interesting to me personally or professionally. I do this for several reasons – to ambiently keep in touch, conduct mini surveys, to learn and build relationships. I use it to share personal updates about what I’m thinking/doing (within reason) and professional updates about events, projects. Have both a personal (@rolandharwood) and professional (@100open) twitter account and try to mix up the posts to both. We also use twitterfeed to repost other peoples open innovation challenge tweets to our @100open account. I find the blurring of my professional and personal lives on twitter interesting and helpful thought don’t always get it right and some of my closest friends complain about the volume and relevance of my tweets (but I guess I don’t care enough to change) and like the fact that they know a bit more about what we do.
LinkedIn – I find LinkedIn increasingly useful but it’s purely for professional contacts I’ve met or corresponded with (currently approx 1000 people). I tend to use it as an unofficial CV, but more importantly to check out people’s experience and contacts. Use it to share stuff I’m doing (via twitter feed, blog, and slideshare) and build reputation and profile and start new conversations.
Facebook – I don’t use Facebook as much as I used to. For me it’s mainly for friends and family (currently approx 500 people) and for sharing pictures and photos and so a bit more intimate and closed. I re-post my tweets as my status updates so that tends to start quite a few conversations. I also like to see what my friends are up to.
Other – We use other onlinespaces such as slideshare/vimeo/flickr/this blog etc for specific content too.
Despite starting this post saying that our only asset is our network, we’ve thought long and hard about how we monitise this and for now have come to the conclusion that we do this indirectly, not directly. The reason being as follows. If you charge for introductions or subscriptions to a network, there will be some people who find that excellent value, however networks being a numbers game (Poker rather than Chess – see above), the majority of people will tend to feel they have poor value from this kind of arrangement.
“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Oscar Wilde
Therefore, we’ve concluded that the network is better monitised indirectly, and that way everybody gets some value out of it and people only engage with you directly if they want to and you are easy and straightforward to work with. Time will tell if this is a smart strategy. However for companies like P&G, they pride themselves as being perceived as a partner of choice in their industry, and even though in many ways they are very similar to their competition, this means that they get to see opportunities before their competitors which has huge value. So our aim is to be the partner of choice in our industry.
Also, we’ve come to the conclusion that so much opportunity comes about through a low lying awareness of what you are doing and what your capabilities are, which is another field where social media can help massively. However in order to succeed here you need to be famous for something that people want which usually means keeping things simply.
“The world isn’t getting smaller, the networks are getting bigger” Greg Hadfield
So that’s it. This is pretty much all I’ve learned about networks over the past few years. I think networks are as important, if not more important, than our knowledge (either as individuals or organisations). And the increasing interconnections mean we all have to figure out how to harness their power and minimise the downsides of networks (which ought to be another post as this one is long enough!).
If I were to go back to University now (which I have not intention of doing by the way) I’m pretty sure it would be do study Network or Complexity Science which seem to be two really exciting areas right now. Anyway, I don’t have any grand conclusions to all of the above, but I present it as food for thought, discussion and debate, and would welcome any comments as ever. Thanks for reading and if you do nothing else, please chat to someone you don’t know today – you never know what might happen.