We've all heard the wise saying, "It isn't what you know, but who you know." Stephen Borgatti and Rob Cross take a closer look at "who knows whom" and how that affects organizational learning. They find that who knows whom is just the beginning, and they suggest an important area for more careful consideration: How is organizational learning affected by how we know each other.
In their paper, "A Relational View of Information Seeking and Learning in Social Networks" (Management Science 49:4 April 2003), Borgatti and Cross set out to test some basic hypotheses and draw attention to this understudied area of organizational learning. They are ultimately concerned with how information seeking plays out in an organization. They propose that I am more likely to seek information from you if
(1) I know what are your relevant areas of expertise.
(2) I rate your relevant expertise highly.
(3) I have access to you.
(4) I don't risk feeling ignorant by asking you a question.
(5) I don't risk too much obligation by asking you a question.
Interestingly, they propose that physical proximity does not directly affect my likelihood of asking you a question. Instead, they propose that proximity helps increase all the factors above, which in turn increases my likelihood of asking you a question. To me this is a subtle distinction, but the authors do point out the implication that revamping your corporate floor plan may not promote organizational learning unless care is taken to promote the right kinds of relationships (knowing, valuing, access, etc).
Based on careful analysis of two separate organizations, Borgatti and Cross confirm all their hypotheses but one. They do not find a significant correlation between information seeking and cost (ie, factors (5) and (6) above). They suggest that the cost of information seeking (in terms of reputation and obligation) may be a common cultural trait across an organization, rather than a characteristic of a single relationship.
For more on this, see also Cross's book The Hidden Power of Social Networks.