Saturday, January 29, 2005

Weekend Edition: More Sex is Safer Sex

Thanks to my friend Neal Young (professor of computer science at UC Riverside) for pointing me to the writings of Steven Landsburg, professor of economics at The University of Rochester and regular columnist for Slate.

By unflinchingly applying economic concepts to everyday personal choices, Landsburg has written some very provocative essays. His next collection of essays features "More Sex is Safer Sex," an analysis of how promoting monogamy can make sex more dangerous for everyone. If that sounds counterintuitive to you, I recommend you read the long but engaging essay, which I promise is PG-rated. When you're done, consider how Landsburg's take relates to more traditional social network analyses of sexual behavior, such as this recent post.

Landsburg's argument largely boils down to this: If a market is dominated by a few shady operators, then any honest person takes great risk when entering the market. But if enough honest people take that risk on occasion, then they mostly end up interacting with other honest folks, and the likelihood of an honest person meeting a shady operator falls precipitously.

If that argument doesn't get you out of the house on a Saturday night, perhaps it will at least convince you that ventures like e-Bay (which invite great masses of mostly honest people into occasional commerce with each other) are doing much more to make life safer than we may be giving them credit for.


After arguing why most of us should enjoy more sex with more sexual partners, Landsburg then argues that we should severely limit the number of charities that we donate to. Does this guy know how to start an argument or what?

Friday, January 28, 2005

I am ready for Sunbelt XXV

The International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA) organizes the annual Sunbelt Conference. It's one of the world's premier events in the field of SNA.

INSNA started this conference XIV years after the NFL got the idea for the Superbowl. This year's edition, Sunbelt XXV, will be held in Redondo Beach, CA, February XVI-XX. Thankfully that's X days after Superbowl XXXIX, so I will have a chance to cheer the Patriots with the home fans before gleefully escaping our brutal winter (XL inches of snow in the last week with temperatures in the X's) for the sun of southern California.

In the spirit of Sunbelt, I am planning some fun along with the business. For starters, the first day of the conference is my birthday! I will be celebrating with a couple dear friends (who recently moved to CA) and an uncle of mine. Coincidentally, my uncle was also born February XVI, so we'll get to celebrate our birthday together for the first time ever.

INSNA posted the preliminary schedule for Sunbelt XXV not long ago. (Thanks to Bill Ives for bringing this to my attention.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Social Network Analysis for Managers, by Steve Borgatti

Steve Borgatti, Associate Professor in the Department of Organizational Studies at Boston College, is one of the key players in the world of social network analysis. I heard him speak not long ago at the Swiss House in Cambridge, where he shared the trans-Atlantic floor with Duncan Watts (who was video-conferenced in from Switzerland).

During Steve's brief remarks, I was particularly struck by his protective concern for the field of SNA amidst the waves of commercially driven fads that keep washing over it. Business consultants and managers looking for the next big thing have over-hyped legitimate topics such as weak ties, embeddedness, social capital, small worlds, and scale-free. Steve expressed concern that the trendiness of SNA is getting more pronounced, with fads that spike higher and crash faster than ever before.

I share Steve's concern, and for a similarly selfish reason. As a professional with a lifelong devotion to networks, I want to protect the reputation of my field. So when I hear stories of managers clamoring for workshops on how to make their organizations scale-free, I am partly excited that networks have become so popular, but I also worry that "scale-free" got oversold somewhere along the line. Were I Chairman of the SNA-Fed, I would comment to the press about "irrational exuberance" and hint that the small-world interest rate might go up half a percent next month if things don't settle down.

Having said all that, I am delighted to point my readers to Steve's up-and-coming web page on "Social Network Analysis for Managers." This page addresses the fundamentals of applying SNA effectively in the field of management, without any hype.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Whether Selfish or Co-operative, We Get What We Want

Last Friday I attended the very optimistically named "spring" edition of the Boston KM Cluster. Temperatures hovered close to zero (Farenheit) that morning. Any groundhogs in the neighborhood were surely laughing at the foolishness and frozen noses of those of us who heralded "spring" by attending this event.

Quite a few notables from the intersecting worlds of business and social network analysis attended this KM Cluster. I'm not going to say who, exactly, because we held the meeting under the "Chatham House Rule":
"When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed."
I had never formally encountered the Chatham House Rule before, but I will certainly remember it from now on. It both promotes open discussion within the meeting and enables relatively specific followup after the meeting (especially when the meeting relates to broader community development).

One point raised during the conference especially resonated with me because it related directly to my recent posts on structural holes. Recall that a structural hole is a gap between social groups, and that a broker can profit by importing an old idea from one group into a novel setting in the other group, where the idea assumes significant new value. This theory is an extremely compelling explanation for how collaborative innovation works.

However, idealistic networkers like myself can have a hard time swallowing all the implications of structural holes. In particular, the theory of structural holes suggests that information brokers have much to gain by strategically hoarding information and sharing only what suits them. And that puts me in a bit of a spot: As objective as I am, I have to admit that much of my work in SNA is fueled by my personal desire to promote
collaboration as a pragmatic tool for success in a culture that seems more focused on the benefits of competitiveness. So what do I do when my favorite theory in SNA (structural holes) seems to argue strongly in favor of selfish competition?

One of the speakers at KM Cluster addressed the topic of structural holes very specifically, and added a crucial insight that helped me resolve this formerly thorny dilemma. He pointed out that information brokers can pursue power or leadership. Brokers can accumulate power by hoarding information and strategically sharing only what benefits them personally. Brokers who want to grow as leaders shouldn't be so selfish, however. Hoarding information may improve opportunities for personal power but it prevents colleagues from sensing the larger community to which they belong. Brokers who share this kind of information promote themselves as leaders even as they let opportunities for personal power out of their grasp.

In the end, there is plenty of room for competition and collaboration, and for power and leadership. In fact, research suggests that society enjoys just the right amount of each -- that there may be just enough selfish people and co-operative people so that the expected benefit of either strategy is the same. For a very readable glimpse of this theory (which draws heavily on game theory in general and evolutionary stable strategies in particular), check out this article in the latest issue of The Economist: "Games People Play."

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Structural Holes and Collaborative Innovation, Part Two

Today's post is the conclusion of the "Structural Holes" piece that I started yesterday.

How Structural Holes Can Help Managers Improve Collaborative Innovation

Tapping the innovative power of structural holes depends on remembering two things. First and foremost is that people naturally group with those similar to themselves, and consequently relatively few people are natural brokers. Most people need nudging and encouragement before they realize the benefits of discussing ideas outside their regular work group. Managers can play a crucial role in providing this nudging and encouragement, by advocating such discussions and stimulating cross-group interactions.

Balancing the first point, managers should also remember the second: It’s entirely possible to promote too much cross-fertilizing between groups. The goal is to encourage employees to be brokers, not to encourage different groups to stay in constant contact. Creating too many tight-knit links between different groups wastes time and smothers creativity under a blanket of homogeneity.

As managers retire the myth of the “creative person,” it is critical that they not to replace it with the cult of “the broker.” As Burt and others have found in additional studies, even the most introverted can reliably act as brokers, when they see it as a necessary part of their jobs. The lesson is clear: Companies that want to compete today as innovators must make brokering a job requirement.

Final Words

One of the great ironies of Burt’s research on structural holes is that there are hundreds of managers within Raytheon who don’t know about it – even managers specifically working to improve collaborative innovation at Raytheon. How can this be? The sad truth is that Burt’s work is “too academic” to attract notice from these managers. Here is a striking example of the yawning culture gap that separates the academic study of social networks from business practice in this area.

Widening the gap even further is research like "The Nonsense of Knowledge Management" by T.D. Wilson. This paper was recently recommended to a global forum of social scientists by a well-known member of that community. The title alone makes pretty clear that Wilson sees knowledge management as so much consultant mumbo-jumbo that is not worthy of serious study. Wilson furthermore tosses knowledge management, customer relationship management, total quality management, and twenty other business management tools into a single heap of indistinguishable pseudo-science. Talk about a culture gap!

Returning to the lessons learned from Burt’s structural holes, it is easy to conclude one thing at least: There is no point in even trying to close this academic-business culture gap. But there is another lesson even more powerful. Consider the words of Drs. Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, co-creators of the Balanced Scorecard, the world’s benchmark of measuring and managing business performance:

“When it comes to specific measures concerning employee skills, strategic information availability, and organizational alignment, companies have devoted virtually no effort for measuring either the outcomes or the drivers of these capabilities. This gap is disappointing since one of the most important goals for adopting the scorecard measurement and management framework is to promote the growth of individual and organizational capabilities.”

In the social network research of Ron Burt and many of his colleagues, solid quantifiable techniques are finally being developed for these missing measurements. For those brokers able to bring these results into the business of collaborative innovation, the rewards will be substantial.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Structural Holes, part One

I recently wrote a longer piece than my usual post. It is simultaneously about Ron Burt's work on structural holes and the intersection of business and academic interests in SNA. I am going to share the column here in two biggish installments. Enjoy!

Structural Holes: The Source of Good Ideas

What does it take to lead a successful company? Corporate executives today face a growing array of challenges fed by revolutions in technology and globalization. It’s enough to make an executive wonder if leading a successful company is more than a one person job. Actually, in most cases it is. As Tom Malone recently put it in The Future of Work, “As managers, we need to shift our thinking from command and control to coordinate and cultivate -- the best way to gain power is sometimes to give it away.” Coordination, cultivation, and collaboration are increasingly the mode of work at every level.

Thankfully, the very same Internet technology that is helping power the rise of collaboration has also provided a powerful way of studying it. Everyday use of digital communication networks has created a historical database of communication that was unimaginable just a few years ago. This double-whammy of the increasing importance of collaboration and the rapidly growing capability to study it has sparked an explosion of research in the new science of “Social Networks.” Formerly distinct disciplines such as sociology and physics have joined forces with business management, psychology, and computer science, among others, in this burgeoning new field.

Ronald S. Burt, a leading researcher in the field of social networks, has studied creativity, competition, and the flow of ideas for decades. As Hobart W. Williams Professor of Sociology and Strategy at the University Of Chicago School Of Business, he has conducted research with enormous implications for the business of collaborative innovation. This article will explore Burt’s surprising answer to the question, “Where do good ideas come from?” And it will show how to apply Burt’s findings to promote the business of collaborative innovation.

Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

One of the most enduring myths of innovation is that of the “creative person.” (For example, see Amabile.) The truth is that everyone has the capacity to be creative and to join in collaborative innovation. To succeed as an innovative force, any organization must nurture this capacity and not inhibit it. But how?

Not surprisingly, tapping employees’ intrinsic motivation is critical to driving innovation. But that’s not enough, especially if those employees are striving too hard to be “creative.” Burt has shown that more often than not, the key to innovation is not creating a good idea but recognizing the opportunity to re-use an ordinary idea from another group. Or as Burt puts it, “Can you get an idea which is mundane and well known in one place to another place where people would get value out of it?”

Burt coined the term “structural hole” to refer to the social gap between two groups. Structural holes are everywhere. When they occur in business then executives commonly speak of the groups as “silos.” Sales and engineering are a classic example of two groups whose members traditionally interact with their peers rather than across groups.

Burt conducted his latest study at Raytheon, a large US electronics company and military contractor. Burt studied several hundred managers within the supply chain group at Raytheon. As part of the study, he asked each manager to write down ideas to improve Raytheon’s supply chain management. Then he had two Raytheon executives rate the ideas. The best suggestions consistently came from managers who discussed ideas outside their regular work group.

Burt found Raytheon managers good at thinking of ideas but bad at developing them. Too often, Burt said, the managers discussed their ideas with colleagues already in their informal discussion network. Instead, he said, they should have had discussions outside their typical contacts, particularly with an informal boss, or someone with enough power to be an ally but not an actual supervisor.

Next time -- How Structural Holes Can Help Managers Improve Collaborative Innovation

Monday, January 17, 2005

Knowledge Management: The Power to Save the World

Last Friday I attended a lecture by best-selling author, Pulitzer Prize winner, Professor of Medicine, and Professor of Geography, Jared Diamond. He spoke for an hour to an audience of several hundred in Harvard Square about his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

As he does in Collapse, Diamond spent much of his lecture Friday explaining how important it is for any society to find an environmentally sustainable lifestyle. That's why I was especially struck by his final conclusion. Diamond is "cautiously optimistic" about our own future because one one specific modern innovation: the power of the media to help us learn from each other.

Diamond is one of the few people in the world who can credibly tackle enormous topics like this with a refined sense of global proportion. In his previous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, which was a best-seller and won him a Pulitzer, Diamond took a similarly big view to explain in amazingly simple and utterly race-free terms why some cultures tend to obliterate others when they come in contact.

Support from an unbiased heavyweight like Diamond is very encouraging news indeed for those of us working to promote knowledge management and other flavors of organizational learning (OL). He did leave a couple things for the rest of us to work out, though, such as
  1. Bad effects of media. Globally, these include homogeneity and base consumerism.
  2. The gap between saving the world and improving my organization's bottom line. Diamond's big picture makes for good OL publicity but of course leaves all the specifics unsaid.
For more about OL check out SOL, a very highly recommened group.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005


I was enjoying a dyadic phatic conversation this morning until my fellow confabulator pointed out that I am always recounting "chats" in my blog. You know it's true when it hurts! As a handy reference to prevent excessive future chatting, I am archiving this handy visual network of casual conversation, courtesy of the Visual Thesaurus. You might enjoy playing with it too, and imagining how its features and functionality can enhance tools like TouchGraph to better serve the converging world of blogs and social networks.

Chatting Posted by Hello

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Future of Work and Collaborative Knowledge Networks

"I am mentioning this course because aspects of it are open to anyone on the web, as indicated below, and they are interested in more participation. As part of their coursework students will do consulting at real companies and feed back their results into a real research project.

"Peter and Tom are looking to recruit more companies for participation. Course materials will be online on the Web site for everybody. Research results will also be published on the Web site for anyone interested. You can go to The Future of Work and Collaborative Knowledge Networks course site to learn more and see the complete schedule. "

Friday, January 07, 2005

Network Power for Philanthropy and Nonprofits

At last fall's KM Cluster I had the pleasure of meeting Marion Kane (Exec Dir) and Roberto Cremonini (Chief Knowledge & Learning Officer) of the Barr Foundation. They had just unveiled their new slogan, "Using Knowledge, Networks, and Funding to Build a Better Boston for All."

Marion and Roberto told me about a report they commissioned to survey the potential benefits of social network analysis to the world of philanthropy and nonprofits. Written by Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor, it's an excellent overview that I recommend to anyone interested in applying SNA in this sector.

After concisely surveying the relevant parts of social networks, the authors recommend these five strategies to nonprofits seeking the benefits of networks:
  1. Survey existing networks
  2. Develop communities of practice
  3. Develop experiments demonstrating benefits of network approach to NPs
  4. Pioneer network strategy as means to change large-scale systems in society
  5. Use viral marketing to spread idea of networks
And now, I am very pleased to announce that Barr has just made this report publically available as part of the new "Resources" section of its website. You can download the PDF right here. In the spirit of #5 above, please pass it along with thanks to Barr.

Monday, January 03, 2005

social network analysis and knowledge management

There's been some recent discussion on SOCNET (the SNA email group) about knowledge management. Is KM a legitimate field of study? Does SNA have application in business organizations? I am especially interested in the intersection of SNA and KM, and answer yes to both questions. I invite you to check out the discussion and join in. While you're at it, I recommend this post by Bill Ives, who happens to be co-chairing the Jan 21 KM Cluster Boston event on social networks.

Social bookmarks

From my buddy Neal Young comes word of StumbleUpon, a service that lets me rank any website I happen to see with a simple thumb up or down. Then whenever I get the itch, I can click the "Stumble" button on my browser and discover a new page I never knew about, that has been highly rated by other subscribers with interests similar to mine.

From George Siemens comes a vision of furl as a low-overhead blog. Furl lets me save my Internet bookmarks in an online database that I can choose to make public. When a particular page really catches my eye, furl will tell me not only which of its subscribers have "furled" that very page, but also what other pages those folks have furled. For an extremely relevant example of this, see the new "Who is FURLing SNA" link at the top of my links section.

From Denham Grey comes a review of as a social bookmarking tool for knowledge management.

OK! I have finally crossed my threshold of adaptation and will climb aboard the social bookmarking bandwagon. After a little Googling, I highly recommend this comparative review of furl and by Andy Roberts.

And don't forget to check out StumbleUpon too -- it's by far the most fun-oriented of the three.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Goodbye Tree

I actually bought a real tree this season, thanks to an enthusiastic and inspirational friend who reminded me how great real trees are. Though nothing fancy, my tree was sized just right for my living room, beautifully proportioned, and smelled fantastic. I kind of forgot to water my tree after I set it up, and it spent most of the holiday season stubbornly refusing to drink my belated watering. But thankfully, it was rather stubborn about holding onto its needles as well. I guess you could say it fit right in.

Dragging the tree outside was another story. I sadly let it go at the curb and turned around to see a spectacularly messy trail of needles leading me back to my living room. That's all swept up now, except for a few lingering stowaways that I'm sure to discover in some nostalgic moment of 2005.

Christmas trees are perhaps my most favorite and special of all trees. But conveniently enough for this essay, a tree is also a special kind of network beloved by network analysts. (Keep reading, you non-mathematicians. I promise this will go down easy.)

To a network analyst, a "tree" is kind of like a family tree, only simpler. Here is a complete definition of "tree" that I find rather poetic: A tree is a network where every pair of nodes is connected by exactly one path. A good real-world example of a tree is a military-style hierarchy. When we speak of the "chain of command" in this kind of regime, that makes sense only because there is precisely one path of supervisory relationships connecting any pair of individuals in the group.

Network analysts love trees for the same reason generals do. Whether you are designing algorithms for Mapquest or commanding an offensive strike in Falujah, it's very expedient to eliminate ambiguity in favor of unequivocal efficiency.

But here is a funny thing: As easy as it is to find next year's Christmas tree in your nearest woods, it is basically impossible to find social network trees occurring naturally. People have a powerful desire to connect however they see fit, and the hierarchies we observe are but convenient artifices of simplicity laid upon the glorious natural mess of it all.

I guess I lay down the philosophy a little thick when it's past my bed time.

Happy New Year!