Working In A Small World

Stumbled over these musings on how small world theory applies to company organization. They’ve been languishing in my personal wiki for many months, thought I might as well post them as is.
Whilst reading the first few chapters of “Small World” by Mark Buchanan, I was fascinated by the work of Granovetter (see “The Strength of Weak Ties”). This basically highlights the fact that it is weak ties between individuals that are the important ones in a social network; not strong ties as one would expect. People with strong ties in common often have strong ties between them also, hence these links are less important than weak ties (acquaintances) as their removal has little effect on the structure of the graph (as measured in number of degrees between points). Previously descriptions I’ve read about small world phenomena have focussed on hubs/authorities which is a much less human-centric metaphor; quite rightly perhaps as “small worldism” isn’t tied to any particular type of graph, but it’s not very evocative.
This lead me to thinking about relationships within companies. Exploiting social networks to find work, etc seems well explored, indeed it’s behind the current drive for many of the social networking sites and applications that are springing up at the moment. Work relationships seems like a different framework within which to explore the small world phenomena. Or at least it’s the one that occured to me whilst washing up after dinner.

So some thoughts on this:

  • encouraging small world social graphs in a company is beneficial to the flow of information. This is “small world for spreading memes” in the microcosm. However it can also be detrimental as this similar social structure encourages spreading of other kinds of information: gossip and rumours. We might take from this that even if morale is low in a company, at least the lines of communication are still open
  • that networking is important is not really news to anyone, but small world studies prove it’s effective, and support all those fluffy corporate events.
  • that the optimum corporate structure isn’t hierarchical, neither is it completely decentralised, its somewhere in between. Networks that lie in the middle of these two should gain the most benefits (stability, but still good sharing of knowledge)
  • that inter-team communication is as important as bonding in a team, and that the manager alone shouldn’t be the gateway between the team and the rest of the company. If the manage leaves, or is on leave, then you’ve lost the all important weak links and while the team may still stay cohesive they can become isolated.
  • that as an individual, your role in a company can be secured by networking with others. However the detrimental side of this is that as you quickly become a “hub” (people come to you for information because you can find it quicker, or know who to refer them to) the many communication channels can distract you from your key role, and also lift you away from the work that you’re interested in. A company would do wise to acknowledge it’s hubs, but immediately route around them so that they have backups and that those weaks links don’t cripple the company during leave/job changes.
  • it’s the small odd little tasks that people do, those that have them interact with a slightly wider social circle, that can be the most important: they build weak links between teams. It’s too easy to re-organize and draw lines, saying “this isn’t something that Team X should do”, but then you’re further isolating Team X.