Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reading :: Networks in the Knowledge Economy

Networks in the Knowledge Economy
Edited by Rob Cross, Andrew Parker, and Lisa Sasson

Edited collections are often uneven, and this one is no exception. The chapters mostly focus on social network analysis, including relatively new pieces as well as classics, and even two chapters that Malcolm Gladwell originally wrote for the New Yorker. The order is odd as well: Granovetter's classic 1973 piece “The Strength of Weak Ties” comes right after, not before, Krackhardt's 1992 reply to it, “The Strength of Strong Ties,” and a chapter before Gladwell's discussion of the Granovetter piece. Someone who is relatively new to social network analysis – such as, say, me – would have to reconstruct the order themselves.

Fortunately, the individual pieces are strong and compelling, so the reconstruction effort was worth it. By the time I finished the book, I had a good understanding of social network analysis (SNA). It's not that complicated, although some of the pieces use some rather intimidating formulas to crunch the quantitative data.

Cross, Parker, and Sasson start the collection with a strong introduction that both leverages their own data and overviews SNA. Network has become “a central organizing metaphor for twenty-first-century firms,” they point out, particularly in restructuring efforts to “promote organizational flexibility and efficiency”; and “one outcome of these restructuring efforts is that information flow and work increasingly occur through informal networks of relationships rather than through channels tightly prescribed by formal reporting structures or detailed work processes” (p.3). In addition, knowledge-intensive work has become more prevalent, increasing the importance of trust in informal networks (p.3). Such informal networks are not on the organization charts, but “frequently can be sources of both strategic and operational success for an organization” (p.4). So how do we figure out where these informal networks are so that we can promote and leverage them? The authors suggest SNA (p.4).

As they tell it, SNA is not that difficult; their example involved reading an organization chart and having executives fill out a survey. But that simple methodology, they argue, yields complex network diagrams that show the strength and density of ties among executives – and thus insights into (1) social capital; (2) knowledge creation and sharing; and (3) how informal networks support strategic objectives (p.7).

In Chapter 1, Ronald Burt argues that networks can take different shapes, with some optimizing for efficiency (with nonredundant contacts, i.e., contacts that don't connect to each other except through you) and others optimizing for saturation (with redundant contacts, yielding friendships and dense resources). Clusters of contacts need to be connected by weak ties: “weak ties are essential to the flow of information that integrates otherwise disconnected social clusters into a broader society” (p.30).

Chapter 3 expands on weak ties, a concept that comes from Granovetter's 1973 work. Here, David Krackhardt argues that although weak ties can be powerful because they connect disparate networks and draw in different sources of information, we shouldn't ignore “the strength of strong ties in cases of severe change and uncertainty. … Strong ties constitute a base of trust that can reduce resistance and provide comfort in the face of uncertainty” (p.84). Krackhardt demonstrates by drawing on a fascinating case study of a high-tech company facing possible unionization.

Inexplicably, this chapter is followed rather than preceded by Granovetter's classic paper “The strength of weak ties,” in which Granovetter argues that the strength of interpersonal ties can be measured by time, emotional intensity, intimacy, and reciprocal services (p.110). He draws on his study of how people got jobs, finding that they most frequently found new jobs through weak ties rather than strong ones.

Let's skip to Chapter 9, where Krackhardt and Hanson examine the informal networks in an organization. They interviewed executives, and concluded that the organization had at least three informal networks: advice, trust, and communication (p.236). The advice network revealed experts (p.240), but the trust network revealed a very different set of clusters (p.241). The authors were able to convincingly argue that these networks had great bearing on how the organization reacted to issues.

In Chapter 11, Rob Cross, Stephen Borgatti, and Andrew Parker continue this theme by discussing how to make invisible work visible. “Informal relationships among employees are often far more reflective of the way work happens in an organization than relationships established through the formal structure. However, these informal relationships are often invisible or at least only partially understood by managers – a problem that is growing with de-layering of organizations, virtual work, and globalization” (p.262). The authors suggest tracing these invisible relationships with SNA. After another case study, the authors argue that “work of importance is increasingly accomplished collaboratively through informal networks” and “network relationships are critical anchoring points for employees, whose loyalty and commitment may be more to sets of individuals in their network than to a given organization” (p.277). The authors conclude with some methodological notes about how to conduct SNA (p.278).

I hope it's obvious by this point that I find SNA to be a fascinating and valuable technique. But at the same time, to my eye, it has some flaws as an analytical tool for the sort of research I do. Methodologically, SNA only maps connections – mostly self-reported connections – between individuals in an organization. None of these studies appear to triangulate by using observational data or other sources such as data logging (although I have seen some papers elsewhere that attempt to articulate networks through email contacts and frequency, connections in online social networks, and so forth). None of these studies go beyond personal connections to texts, genres, artifacts, practices that are handed down from one individual to the next, and so forth. In this volume, SNA doesn't seem to have a language to describe peripheral influences transmitted through artifacts. That doesn't take away from what SNA does extremely well, but it does limit SNA's use for the sort of research that I do – and it limits SNA's implications for information design, textual design, and related areas.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend the book for anyone who wants a look at SNA or who is studying networks.

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