Creating Sticky Networks


Networking is as big of a buzzword as you can find these days for good reasons: networks solve a lot of problems by connecting people together and leveraging the knowledge of many for social benefit (and sometimes not). Simply put: networks allow us to do more.

But more can also be a problem.

It is not just that there is a lot of information out there, which creates its own set of problems, its that there is also so much to DO with this information. With all of the data streaming at us from social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, LinkedIn, Ning, and the myriad other ways in which social media allows us to connect it is hard to stay on top of it all. Even with good filters, the wealth of information available on even very narrow topics can be remarkable. I find this creates a temptation to try and get to it all. How often have you heard people lament about not being able to catch up on all of their blogs, tweets, magazine articles and beyond — let alone your conversations with friends, colleagues and loved ones?

While sociologist Mark Granovetter’s concept of the ‘strength of weak ties’ has been promoted vigorously in the social sciences and business to justify the potential for social networking, the value of the concept has some clear limitations that often get dismissed in the hype. One of the risks is that the time and energy it takes to invest in social networks broadly can take you away from creating strong ties. Think of how we socialized a generation ago: we had a close set of friends and family and associates, a few pen and phone pals, and some who we saw at occasional events like family reunions and conferences. Now, we “see” them daily, maybe hourly. That creates a lot of encounters, but at a superficial level for the most part.

While this is good for some things, particularly like getting simple messages out quickly, it is a problem for dealing with complex information or messages with multiple layers and potential meanings. Those require a little depth of contact that many networking tools or “networking events” don’t encourage.For those kinds of complex problems, we need tighter bonds and more meaning-making opportunities in our networks.

Mario Luis Small from the University of Chicago has explored the role of social networks and how they benefit those with little social capital. His recent book, Unanticipated Gains: Orgins of network inequality in everyday life, looked in depth at how social capital could be grown with a community of low-income, New York City mothers:

Social capital theorists have shown that some people do better than others in part because they enjoy larger, more supportive, or otherwise more useful networks. But why do some people have better networks than others? Unanticipated Gains argues that the answer lies less in people’s deliberate “networking” than in the institutional conditions of the churches, colleges, firms, gyms, childcare centers, schools, and other organizations in which they happen to participate routinely. The book illustrates and develops this argument by exploring the experiences of New York City mothers whose children were enrolled in childcare centers.

Unanticipated Gains examines why scores of these mothers, after enrolling their children in centers, dramatically expanded both the size and usefulness of their personal networks, often in ways they did not expect. Whether, how, and how much the mothers’ networks were altered—and how useful these networks were—depended on the apparently trivial but remarkably consequential practices and regulations of the centers, from the structure of their PTOs, to the regularity of their fieldtrips to amusement parks and zoos, to their ostensibly innocuous rules regarding pick-up and drop-off times.

Relying on scores of in-depth interviews with mothers, quantitative data on both mothers and centers, and detailed case studies of other routine organizations (from beauty salons and bath houses to colleges and churches), Unanticiapted Gains shows that how much people gain from their connections depends substantially on institutional conditions they often do not control, and through everyday process they may not even be aware of. (Original post here)

Although Small was not intending to write about what makes a network ‘sticky’, to use Gabriel Szulanski‘s term, he winds up with a set of recommendations that do just that. Indeed, Small’s suggestions – create intimate, cooperative, active,  stable, yet flexible and adaptive networks — make networks sticky (and resilient) while mitigating the effects of creating widening gaps between the well-connected and capital-rich and the rest.

Small suggests that there are 7 ingredients that help dampen harmful, unintended consequences of networks:

1.      Create frequent opportunities for interaction;

2.      Ensure frequent and regular interactions between agents;

3.      Interactions must be long lasting and exist beyond simple, quick exchanges;

4.      Interactions are minimally competitive;

5.      Interactions are maximally cooperative;

6.      Intrinsic motivation consistent with that of the organizations or networks drive interactions and encourage engagement over time;

7.      Extrinsic motivators must also be present to support the maintenance of ties over time.

Perhaps it is time to consider employing some design thinking towards creating stickier, rather than bigger or broader networks.

For more reading on the phenomenon of “stickiness”, consider the following:

Szulanski, G. (2000). The Process of Knowledge Transfer: A Diachronic Analysis of Stickiness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Szulanski, G. (2003). Sticky knowledge: Barriers to knowing in the firm. London: Sage.

Szulanski, G., & Jensen, R. (2004). Overcoming stickiness: An empirical investigation of the role of the template in the replication of organizational routines. Managerial and Decision Economics, 25(67), 347-363.

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