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 theI 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).
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." Chatham
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."