Imagine this: You can choose 25 people to spend the rest of your life with. Contact breaks off with everybody else (zombie apocalypse, alien abductions – you pick a reason). You’d choose your closest family members, of course. Your best friends, too. Maybe a doctor, a handyman and a few friends of your kids. And that’s it, your group is full. You’d live happily until the end of your days. Or would you?
5 tips how to harness network effects for organisation development
Silos form, when strong ties predominate
When we need help in our private lives, we regularly look beyond the circle of our closest friends as a matter of course: who could teach me how to play guitar? Who could upholster my old armchair? Who knows how to best prune shrubs? In many companies, however, reality looks different: teams and departments keep to themselves. Silos develop – the infamous bane of many managers’ existence. Not even holacratic models or matrix organisations can really change that.
Nobody has 27 best friends. Nobody has 39 close colleagues. Nobody needs to, either. Weak ties, i.e., casual acquaintances, can be valuable to us, too. American sociologist and economist Mark Granovetter established as early as 1973 why it’s exactly those acquaintances between people that can make actors in a network successful.
Building bridges to outside networks
Companies can make targeted use of the power of weak ties. Granovetter’s idea is simple: Suppose you have two best friends. You have a strong tie with both of them, obviously. According to Granovetter, the likelihood that your two best friends don’t know each other at all is very low. Actually, they probably get along really well – they might even go for a beer without you from time to time. The three of you form a strong network. Unfortunately, you’re probably not going to get anywhere with just these two if you’re looking for a new job or someone to build you a wall unit for your living room. What you’d need then is a bridge to another network. A bridge to another circle of friends, to a casual acquaintance or your second cousin you don’t usually keep in touch with. Your hairdresser might be a good place to start. He is your only connection to his networks, that would not be accessible to you otherwise. So, the key question is: Do I know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody…? Today, social networks on the internet have the potential to build such bridges. Granovetter could hardly have anticipated the emergence of these kinds of platforms, but his theory explains part of their success.
Do Facebook friends haver their merits, after all?
Personally, I currently have 313 Facebook friends and more than 500 contacts on LinkedIn. I’m also part of various WhatsApp groups and I share all kinds of photographic material with close to 400 followers on Instagram. While social media experts might find that kind of reach laughable, the sceptics say: “Who cares? Real friends are far more valuable!” Perhaps, but according to Granovetter, it’s the loose connections that build bridges to other networks.
Your boss shows up in your office on a regular basis? Wonderful! You work out with your colleagues? Excellent! Your company sponsors team events complete with a high ropes course and a nice dinner? Fantastic! There’s a good chance this will help form strong bonds that foster exchange, give you an emotional home and strengthen your trust in the group. You won’t build bridges to other teams like this, though. And these are just the type of connections you need if you want to solve problems in your organisation, drive innovation or identify and seize opportunities: Who has experience with the Chinese market? Who has dealt with a similar problem before? What other suppliers could produce the parts we need so urgently?
Weak ties can help with issues like these. As a manager, you can help your company or team build up such a network of weak ties. Five tips on how to go about it:
Use existing events as a networking platform
Christmas party or summer fête – whatever major events are scheduled in your company, don’t miss the chance to put networking on the agenda. An important point here is to guide these networking sessions. For example, ask participants to introduce themselves briefly with three facts about themselves, Working out Loud style. Then, have them find connecting factors and common ground with the people next to them. Or check the seating arrangements and help with the small talk (for some it’s a pain), for example with a little quiz about your customers and their companies.
Build up an Enterprise Social Network, or ESN for short
People like to help other people – one of the reasons, why social networks work. Ideally, your company has a channel that can reach all employees at the same time. The perfect place for the search for an expert. This network also helps you to get different perspectives and opinions or to gauge the mood in the company.
This management method is resource- or means-oriented. One resource that everyone can draw on is the people they know. Effectuation helps us to utilize our networks in a targeted way for our projects and to enter productive partnerships. We won’t describe Effectuation in detail here – that would be a bit much. In any case, a closer look at this approach is definitely worth your while, if you want to make use of the strength of weak ties in your day-to-day work.
Develop formats to strengthen weak ties
An internal trade fair, peer learning groups based on lernOS, lunch dates – there are no limits to your imagination here. Try to bring people into contact. Employees who have been working on the same team for some time will be happy about new impulses, colleagues develop a better understanding for the work of other departments – entire processes become faster, when the right weak ties are available.
Set up your office for chance encounters
This doesn’t mean open-plan offices with half-height partition walls and jungle oases of indoor plants, but an office or work architecture that facilitates encounters: open learning spaces, free choice of work desks, a cafeteria, that can also be used as workspace.
Of course, people also need rooms for retreat and quiet work. In addition, though, with creating spaces that invite exchange you can ensure that even the most focused knowledge worker has some chance encounters.
With all that strengthening of weak ties, as a manager you can’t forget the strong ties. After all, it won’t help you much if your employees don’t know what their closest colleagues are doing or which experts they have on their own team. Strong ties take care and, above all, time. Weak ties can be created more quickly, but not without investment, either. You can discuss just how much you want to invest in both weak and strong ties with colleagues some time – maybe with those you haven’t had a beer with yet.
You’d like to discuss this topic further or want more information? Then you’re welcome to get in touch with Jana Seifert. In the spirit of strengthening weak ties, she’d be happy to hear from you.
Mark S. Granovetter: The Strength of Weak Ties (abgerufen am 17. Januar 2022). American Journal of Sociology, Volume 78, Ausgabe 6 (Mai 1973), S. 1360-1380
Michael Faschingbauer: Effectuation: Wie erfolgreiche Unternehmer denken, entscheiden und handeln. 4. Auflage, Schäffer-Poeschel 2021