In all the hand wringing and advice giving that surrounds the hot topic of social media, one thing often overlooked is that networks of connected people have a certain type of structure, and this network structure provides some clues for how to extract benefits from your own social network. Essentially, every person's network of contacts, colleagues, friends and associates (online or offline) is actually a small cluster within a much bigger network, which in turn is just a cluster within an even bigger network, and so forth. Because of this structure, the most useful positions aren't those with the most connections to other people, but those with the most connections to other clusters of people. Rather than the "strong ties" you have with your closest friends or your immediate co-workers, in other words, the robustness and usefulness of your own social network will be based more on the number of "weak ties" you also maintain - that is, ties to the people you don't know quite as well, or don't interact with quite as often. These are the people most likely to be connected to clusters you aren't familiar with and don't have access to yourself.
Nearly 40 years ago, Mark Granovetter of Johns Hopkins University studied the diffusion of information through a social network and suggested that a mix of strong and weak connections is crucial, because every network really consists of many smaller, interconnected networks, and for information to spread throughout the whole population it must be able to "jump" from one social network to another. In Granovetter's words,
"If one tells a rumor to all his close friends, and they do likewise, many will hear the rumor a second and third time, since those linked by strong ties tend to share friends. If the motivation for sharing the rumor is dampened a bit on each wave of retelling, then the rumor moving through strong ties is much more likely to be limited to a few cliques than that going via weak ones; bridges will not be crossed."
Granovetter's paper, "The Strength of Weak Ties," eventually became the most referenced paper on social networks of all time. Weak ties have many implications, suitable for a wide variety of business and personal situations. Suppose you're looking for a new job, for instance. Everyone already knows, of course, that networking is the way to find out about job openings and career opportunities. But not all networking is the same. Because information spreads quickly and thoroughly among people who are well connected - that is, people who have strong ties to each other - if one of your good friends knows of a job opening then chances are you and your other close friends already know of it, as well. But the job openings known to your weak-tie friends - those friends or colleagues with whom you don't interact as often - are not likely to be known to your own friends, or to you. Granovetter, in fact, found that if you're looking for a job you'll get your best leads not from your closest friends or the associates who know you well, but from acquaintances you don't know so well, because these acquaintances are the ones most likely to know people in other clusters, outside your own.
The "weak ties" principle applies to other situations, as well. In the June issue of Harvard Business Review, for instance, David Teten and Chris Farmer make a similar argument when it comes to venture capital investing. They don't call it the "weak ties" principle, per se, but that's what it is. What they've found in their own research is that those firms that share information with others regarding potential investment prospects tend to gain access to a wider network of candidates - essentially leveraging their weak network ties, rather than focusing solely on strong ties. They also cite another recent study by other academics that shows VC firms concentrated in the traditional tech centers (Silicon Valley, NY, Boston) do better than other firms primarily because they "cast a wide, public net" - harvesting the results of their weak ties.
Or consider the question of generating new business in the B2B space, or with regard to expensive, considered purchases. If you use a straight-ahead business development plan you'll develop a laundry list of leads and opportunities to be followed up. While this can be useful, the truth is that a great deal of such business comes in via the referral of others. And how can you increase your access to such referrals? You guessed it - by concentrating on your weak ties, rather than on your strong ties. By developing your own network of industry colleagues and blog or Twitter followers, for instance, you get access to their connections with others. And one of my favorite strategies for B2B competitors is to prepare PowerPoint decks about the benefits of the firm, and then make those decks freely available on the Web site for download and unlimited use. But this isn't a tool for persuading the people who come to your Web site to buy. It's a tool for them to persuade others within their firm. In effect you are arming these weak-tie prospects with the tools necessary to appeal to their own clusters of connections.
And of course, the power of weak ties can hardly be overstated when it comes to generating creative or innovative ideas. All new ideas come from combining previous ideas and concepts. The ideas and innovations available to us human beings can themselves be thought of as a kind of network, with some ideas connected to others, clusters of ideas within other clusters, and so forth. So the surest way NOT to have a creative breakthrough is to rely on all the experts you already know, and all the disciplines you're already familiar with. Your best new ideas - and a company's most breakthrough innovations - will come when you tap your weak ties. These are the disciplines you know less about, or the experts you rarely consult, or the people you associate with less frequently. One study of entrepreneurs showed they are more likely to have "deliberately exposed themselves to different sources of information, by striking up conversations on trains, for example, or maintaining a diverse range of acquaintances, to increase the odds of stumbling upon an interesting opportunity."
But finally, even if all you're trying to do is to advance your own career at whatever firm you're working for, the "weak ties" argument will help you better appreciate what other executives you should be trying to add to your network. It's long been thought that the best way to get ahead is to hitch your wagon to a senior star, but a University of Chicago business school professor's new book, Neighbor Networks, will soon disabuse you of this notion. A summary of Prof. Ronald S. Burt's book suggests "There is no advantage at all to having well-connected friends." Instead, it is the managers who connect diverse groups that tend to have demonstrably higher salaries. Moreover, this is not because they become linchpins or hubs or gateways to power and information, per se, but rather because managers who maintain contacts in a diverse range of departments are getting a very healthy and intellectually stimulating "exposure to diverse ideas and behaviors." According to Burt, "The way networks have their effect is not by getting information from people, but rather by finding people who are interesting and who think differently from you," adding that it isn't being in the know, "but rather having to translate between different groups so that you develop gifts of analogy, metaphor, and communicating between people who have difficulty communicating to each other."
So whether you're interested in a new job or a better job, more business clients or simply more creative ideas - thinking more carefully about the weak ties in your own network might be a worthwhile activity.