Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Holiday Special -- The Corrections

I am just back from Bethlehem, PA, recovering from family time, and settling in for the final countdown to 2005.

It's a longish drive from Boston to Bethlehem -- not worth flying, but still taxing on my sanity. A couple years ago, I discovered that books on tape structure the drive time infinitely better than radio or my modest collection of music tapes and CDs. Being a musician, I never would have guessed this but just luckily stumbled into it. And thank God I did. Holiday time by itself is already taxing enough on my sanity.

From this year's holiday drive, I am pleased to recommend The Corrections, as written by Jonathan Franzen and read by Dylan Baker. It's a dark and utterly hilarious account of the crazy dysfunctional Lambert family as their lives fall apart in a myriad of ways. Baker's reading is right on and features evocative accents of the many different characters.

The funny thing is that I didn't have any idea what The Corrections was about when I borrowed it from the library. Had I known, I probably would have put it back on the shelf, in the manner of the Lambert's firstborn son Gary, whose actions are carefully calculated to conceal his pains. As it was, I was blessedly free from the self-conscious weight of deliberately choosing a crazy family story, and so I relished every bit of it. The fact that the novel careens towards a Christmas-time climax made the whole story almost too perfect for my holiday driving entertainment.

And now, prepare to be amazed by my obligatory connection to social network analysis....

What planted The Corrections in my brain and got me to listen to it? Ironically, a rather funny commentary in its own right about meta-humility, from a recent Sunday NY Times Magazine column (which you need to pay to read by now, since it's buried in the archives). In contrast to the many actors and politicians who profess to be "humbled" when they win Oscars or big elections, Jonathan Franzen has not learned the art of public so-called humility. Hence when Oprah offered to list The Corrections on her best-seller-guaranteeing Orpah Book Club, Franzen's reply was essentially, "No, thanks. I am a serious writer and the Oprah Book Club is beneath me." You have to hand it to the guy for sticking to his principles even when it not only costs him immediate big sales but also alienates thousands of potential lifelong fans.

So anyway, even if Franzen is quite possibly a jerk who thinks we won't appreciate his book and prefers not to have common folks recommending it, I am going to go out on a limb and advise you to check it out anyway.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Are You a Change Maker?

Happy Holidays everybody! I am ready for a relaxing Christmas weekend in my hometown of Bethlehem, PA. It's "Christmas City USA" and worth visiting in December if you're ever nearby and curious for an 18th century Moravian take on Christmas. You'll love the hundreds of Moravian stars hung above front doors all across town. And you can marvel at the gigantic electric star that sparkles from a nearby hilltop and guides wise people of all kinds to the growing industrial parks emerging from the rubble of Bethlehem Steel.

Before I go, let me recommend a good read --

Check out the latest issue of Fast Company. You can recognize it on the newsstands when you spot Malcolm Gladwell's big wooly afro, which is featured on the cover. Gladwell's unruly haircut is actually central to his next big book (you'll never guess why, though). I love Gladwell, and Fast Company's cover story is a good profile, but the story made me a bit sad for the true founders of SNA who now stand in the long, long, shadow of "The Tipping Point."

Also in the issue, Keith Hammonds has written a great article, "A Lever Long Enough to Move the World," about Ashoka and its visionary founder Bill Drayton.

Drayton's quest is to bring the world's citizen sector to life. He's trying to recitfy a couple hundred years of over-focus on the corporate sector, dating from the Industrial Revolution. How to achieve such a monumental task? With the power of networking, of course. Ashoka is a "21st century United Way" that identifies social entrepreneurial fellows and creates a world-problem-solving network through their combined expertise. Wow!

Here's a passage from the article that both conveys the scope of Drayton's vision and invites all of us to join the quest. Are you ready to accept Drayton's invitation?

Drayton was meeting two years ago with eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, whose Omidyar Network ultimately committed to investing $20 million over five years in Ashoka. Drayton described Ashoka's central goal -- to speed and make possible the emergence of an entrepreneurial citizen sector. Omidyar pressed: "That's an intermediate goal. What are you really after?" It was a good question, Drayton realized.

And he thought, We have this network of entrepreneurs, all of them seeding social innovation. "That is changing a lot of things, upsetting local patterns, weakening existing structures, weakening the idea that things are the way they are. It's an invitation for people to step up and do things differently. That first change touches a series of people who weren't doing this before. They're not passive anymore. They're full citizens, change makers."

As of right then, Ashoka embraced a new goal: "Everyone a change maker."

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Power Company

"Power is the capacity to participate in creative controversy. Power is the ability to make one's self heard, the capacity to cause others to take one's concern seriously. . . . It is also the capacity to listen. It is the capacity to respond creatively to others, to the needs of others. In all these dimensions, power engenders conflict."

-- JAMES LUTHER ADAMS (1901-1994)

In the latest issue of UU World, I came upon this quote -- a worthwhile meditation that helps me find my center of power amidst the conflicting demands of community.

The issue is filled with reflections on power. From a personal essay by Rob Eller-Isaacs comes this: "Power born of the proximity of opposing forces [is] the power that engenders depth and makes transformation possible.... Think about electrical power. Electricity is generated when opposite magnetic poles come into proximity. If kept too far apart there is no power, no energy, no charge. The world is shaped by those most willing to engage."

Also in this issue, Harvard/ Kennedy School Professor Joseph Nye speaks about the need to use both the soft power of seduction and the hard power of coercion. That's refreshing talk in a community traditionally dominated by pacifists.

I'm sitting here thinking about different manifestations of soft and hard power -- in international, corporate, and social communities. Perhaps a good topic for later. I can never get to sleep if I get thinking and writing at this hour.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Six Degrees: Seminar with Duncan Watts Jan 12

Professor David Lazer organizes a fine series at Harvard's Kennedy School, "The Cambridge Colloquium on Complexity and Social Networks (CCCSN)." Next month the series features a notable seminar. Thanks to David for allowing me to share this:

Duncan Watts
Columbia University

"Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age "

(videoconferenced from Zurich)

with comment by Stephen Borgatti, Boston College
Wednesday, January 12, 2004
Swiss Consulate,420 Broadway,Cambridge,MA
Please RSVP:
This seminar is co-sponsored by the National Center for Digital Government

We've all heard of the small world phenomenon - the idea that each one of us can be connected to everyone else through only "six degrees of separation." But where did this idea come from? Is it true? And if it is, what implications does it have for the problems of modern society? This talk sketches out the scholarly history of the small world problem (alongside its meteoric rise in popular culture), from its origins in sociology to an explosion of recent work in physics and mathematics. The lecture also discusses the importance of "six degrees" to a range of issues, from individuals searching for jobs and organizations solving complex problems, to the spread of disease epidemics and the cascade-like dynamics of cultural fads. In the modern world, it is not sufficient simply to recognize that we are all connected; we must understand both the patterns of those connections and they way they drive our individual and collective behavior.

The conferernce is cosponsored by TAICON. TAICON is a trans-Atlantic initiative, based at Harvard and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH), that brings together research on social networks and complexity. It is co-chaired by David Lazer and Lars-Erik Cederman(ETH).

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Do small world networks promote innovation?

After reading the HBS Working Knowledge interview of HBS Professor Lee Fleming, I was happy to connect with Lee in person early this week. We discussed his working paper, "Small Worlds and Regional Innovative Advantage," co-authored with Charles King and Adam Juda.

This paper seeks to answer the question: Do small world networks promote innovation?

[By "small world" they mean that people tend to connect to their neighbors (hence we feel like local actors) but there are enough other links so that there is a short path of relationships between any two people, even across great distance.]

Fleming et al note that many have argued "yes" to this question but with scant evidence. So they have collected an impressive body of data to put the question to a more rigorous test.

Their results? My reading of the paper is that small world networks (at least the ones they studied) aren't so closely related to innovation after all. When I put that to Lee, he declined to sound so definitive and said, "The jury is still out."

Roughly speaking, here is what they did: Lee's team collected records of 2.5 million US patents filed by 2 million inventors over the last 25 years. Then they created a multi-component network by linking inventors with jointly filed patents. Finally, they looked at the largest connected component in each of 337 metropolitan areas, calculated 19 different characteristics of each (from both economic and network perspectives) and determined the correlations of these characteristics across all 337 regions.

Which characteristics correlate to more patenting? The strongest predictors of a productive patenting network of inventors are (1) one type of technology dominates the network of inventors, rather than many different kinds of technology, (2) young technology, (3) one firm dominates the network, rather than many different firms.

As for small world characteristics, Fleming et al found that clustering (connectedness of neighbors) has a negative relationship with innovation. Short path length has a statisticaly robust positive relationship, but its magnitude is several hundred times weaker than the positive effect of a regional monopoly (#3 above), for example.

Lee has left the "30,000-foot" view of this research, and his next project is to investigate a more closeup view that studies individual inventors in much greater detail. So far he is finding similar results (clustering is bad, short path lenghts marginally good) but again, the jury is still out.

After reading how BzzAgent succeeds at viral marketing without even considering SNA, and now reading Lee's research, my sense of social network analysis has just become significantly more abstract. These results are more than a little discouraging to anyone hoping to sell SNA as a engine of productivity. But the SNA practitioner in me is still encouraged, on balance, by results such as Burt's study of Raytheon managers. And the SNA researcher in me is excited to see how these studies continue to unfold, either way.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

HBS Prof Teresa Amibile on creativity in business

Check out Fast Company's December article about Teresa Amibile, entitled "The 6 Myths Of Creativity"

Columnist Bill Breen says, "Amabile, who heads the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School and is the only tenured professor at a top B-school to devote her entire research program to the study of creativity, is one of the country's foremost explorers of business innovation."

He explains how Amibele's research is overturning long-held myths about creativity. In Amibele's words, these are

1. Creativity Comes From Creative Types
2. Money Is a Creativity Motivator
3. Time Pressure Fuels Creativity
4. Fear Forces Breakthroughs
5. Competition Beats Collaboration
6. A Streamlined Organization Is a Creative Organization

Holiday reflections on social navigation

Many of us are mailing holiday cards this time of year. I am a bit irregular about this, averaging a big holiday mailing every couple years or so. This year I am stocked up on cards and stamps and have been mailing in earnest.

I have spent more than enough time at my computer this year and thought it would be fun to give my word processor a holiday break. By reverting to a ball point pen I am unfortunately not doing my posture any favors. I am more hunched at my desk than ever in repeated attempts to recreate the legible handwriting of my youth. But by spending the time to create each letter individually, I do enjoy a more real sense of connection to my recipients. That is, I get to reflect on my wonderful collection of friends at more length and connect that way, even though none of my cards comes with a "reply" button.

As I sift through my old address books (both online and off) it's obvious that my friends are even more diverse than the ways I have met them. Mostly I know them through shared activities such as piano, bike racing, organizational development, computer science, Unitarian Universalism, and evangelical Christianity. I have to admit some of those activities make odd pairings -- for example, the Unitarian and Christian circles of my life never mix unless I go out of my way to bring together friends from every chapter of my life.

I'm sure you, dear reader, also have many different groups of friends in your life. It's a wonderful part of being human. But did you know that, aside from manifesting the quirky twists and turns of your own life, your various groups of friends also literally make it possible for you to navigate the social world? That if you had but one homogeneous group of friends, no matter how wonderful they were, your ability to navigate socially would be crippled?

Let me give a very pertinent example of what I mean by "navigate socially." In my last post I referred to a recently published interview of HBS Professor Lee Fleming. I was very intrigued by his research, and thought I would try to get in touch with him. But how exactly should I get in touch with him? That is just what I mean by navigating socially.

It turns out that Lee's homepage on the Internet includes a reference to his bike racing career. And wouldn't you know, Lee raced bikes as a PhD student at Stanford just when my old Princeton cycling teammate Derek Bouchard Hall was racing bikes and getting his master's degree at Stanford. I e-mailed Derek to see if he knew Lee, and before I knew it got a message from Lee himself, entitled "Small World Cycling Networks."

In other words, it seemed that Lee and I were best connected through our mutual interest in SNA, but actually we enjoyed a much stronger link through our mutual bike racing teammate Derek. (Derek eventually got his MBA at Harvard, where Lee is a professor, making this connection even stronger.)

The moral of the story: Diverse groups of friends are not just a blessed gift, but also a key ingredient to making the connections you want. Keep this in mind the next time you're using LinkedIn to make a contact. It's a great tool but rather monochromatic amidst the rainbow of possible relationships you can tap into.

BTW, don't take my word on this. Duncan Watts, Peter Dodds, and Mark Newman have published a wonderful little paper on this topic. They analyze a very intuitive model and show that 2-3 different groups or categories of friends is ideal. If you have only one group of friends, or if you have ten different groups of friends, then you risk asking the wrong person in your attempt to get one step closer to your social goal.

Next time I'll share the fascinating conversation I had with Lee about his working paper: "Small Worlds and Regional Innovative Advantage."

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Harvard Business School Studies Boston Inventor Networks

Thanks to Wally Clausen for pointing me to a recent article in the online journal Working Knowledge published by Harvard Business School. Sara Grant interviews HBS associate professor Lee Fleming about his research on inter-organizational networks of inventors.

It's a good article, especially if you're interested in collaborative innovation, and even more so if you're interested in Boston, where Fleming has conducted his network surveys. You can read the article here: "Caves, Clusters, and Weak Ties: The Six Degrees World of Inventors."

Fleming has studied networks of inventors by cataloging jointly filed patents. He's found that by the mid-90's most of Boston's inventors were at least indirectly connected by these jointly-filed-patent relationships.

To put a more intuitive spin on this result, it's similar in spirit to a Swedish study showing that virtually all adult Swedes are connected in a giant "slept with" network. Of course, the Swedish researchers did not have legal papers documenting each link in this sexual network, but ultimately they were driven by a similar quest to understand large-scale connectivity.

Fleming concludes with thoughts on how managers can use inventor networks to their advantage: "Simple awareness of the shrinking world of inventors is the first step. Set up unobtrusive legal protection, make your technical professionals aware of the issues, and then trust them to manage their knowledge sharing."

Monday, December 06, 2004

Do You Believe in Word-of-Mouth Marketing?

Rob Walker takes a close look at the world of viral marketing in the NY Times Magazine cover story, "The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders." Walker investigates the world of BzzAgent, a Boston-based ad agency that relies on tens of thousands of volunteers to spread the word (or "bzz") about its clients' products.

Walker starts by asking the question, "Why do so many people voluntarily spend their free time marketing for BzzAgent?" Even before reading the article, you can probably guess the big reasons. It's cool to be the first person on your block with a particular product, and even better when you can persuade people to follow your lead.

Lots of other interesting questions come up. Is it ethical to talk up a new BBQ sauce to your friends when your main points come off a BzzAgent tip sheet? BzzAgent volunteers answer "yes" definitively -- they only talk up the products they like, after all. But Walker discovers that there are powerful psychological forces behind the scenes that cast doubt on BzzAgents' talk.

Along the way, Walker explains how BzzAgent volunteers have found personal transformation by signing up to help BzzAgent sell stuff. Suddenly they find themselves striking up conversations at every oppportunity, and emerging from their shells.

In fact, BzzAgent has found that just about anyone can be an effective agent. Unlike other carefully screened word-of-mouth marketing teams, which add only the coolest teenagers to their ranks, BzzAgent simply lets people sign up and volunteer. This raises a serious challenge to the "Tipping Point"'s world of connectors, mavens, and salespeople, a topic that BzzAgent and Walker both give serious consideration. (See "Personality and Propensity to Brokerage" for related thoughts on this topic.)

What is the biggest reason of all for BzzAgent's success? Walker comes to an uncomfortable conclusion, in conversation with Jason Desjardins, one of BzzAgents top-ranked volunteers:

Some people are lucky enough to find meaning and fulfillment through their work, family or spirituality. But many people don't. Many people have boring jobs and indifferent bosses. They feel ignored by politicians. They send e-mail to customer service and no one responds. They get no feedback. It's easy to feel helpless, uncounted, disconnected. Do you think, I asked Desjardins, that there's some element of that going on with BzzAgent?

''I think for some people it probably is,'' he answered. ''For me, it's being part of something big. I think it's such a big thing that's going to shape marketing. To actually be one of the people involved in shaping that is, to me, big.'' That made sense to me too. After all, there is one thing that is even more powerful than the upper hand, more seductive than persuading: believing.