Better Collaboration through Network Science

A few years back when Microsoft started talking about how we should all ‘work like a network,’ I thought it was another example of empty platitudes and poorly considered marketing. Maybe it wasn’t such a great marketing campaign in and of itself, but in hindsight — they were exactly right. We do need to work like a network — and try to better leverage the wisdom of the crowd.

In a session at the European SharePoint Conference in Vienna, Austria earlier this month, I gave a talk about the science behind social networking, and shared some of my thoughts about how knowledge management, in general, needs to pay closer attention to what has happened / is happening within the social space. Specifically, the SharePoint community needs to understand why social collaboration IS the future of collaboration. Here’s why:

No matter what our role, to some degree we work as individual contributors. We’re creating content in many different formats, lists, tasks, and so forth. And we’re saving all of that content somewhere. It’s on our desktops, its in various applications, it’s increasing in cloud-based systems. And we’re still keeping a lot of our intellectual property on good old fashioned paper.

With all of this going on, we also work with other people. We have a peer with whom we are working on a project, or a joint presentation. We might have a direct report who contributes to our work, or someone outside of our team who regularly reviews and provides input on our work. And we all have a manager who may review, provide input, or leverage our content.

Leveraging the shared knowledge of this small network is fairly simple, regardless of the tools we use — or that they use. Because with a small network, we have a fairly good idea of the value each team member provides — and where to go for help with certain tasks, to find content, and so forth.

But what if you need knowledge beyond your simple network?

The idea of a single network, with all nodes connected to all other nodes, is a small-team concept — and simply does not translate to large organizations. And yet that is how we handicap ourselves in enterprise collaboration, assuming that as the network grows, with every node (person, document, artifact) connected to every other node, search will “just work” and social collaboration across this flattened, two-dimensional organizational concept will somehow make people more….well, collaborative.

According to Ron Burt at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, your network is actually a set of clusters — not one giant network. In a Forbes article by Michael Simmons (Why Being The Most Connected Is A Vanity Metric), the author talks with Burt about clustering being one of the basic patterns within network science, and how we all naturally participate in cluster. Some clusters come from our roles and professional circles — communities of practice, like being a business analyst or a project manager, for example. Other clusters form around age, musical tastes, educational backgrounds, sports, and so forth. Information is created and travels around within the cluster, but much of that data never leaves the cluster.

But there are some individuals within each cluster who act as brokers between clusters. These are people who see value in sharing information outside of a cluster, and who bring new ideas into the cluster, or group, from other groups.

Simmons expands on the brokering concept, writing:

A key insight from network science is the power of brokering, the act of moving information from one group to another. Burt explains, “What a broker does is make a sticky information market more fluid. Great ideas will never move if we wait for them to be spoken in the same language.”
Network brokers (i.e. — connectors) have three advantages:
>>Breadth. They pull their information from diverse clusters.
>>Timing. While they may not be the first to hear information, they are first to introduce information to another cluster.
>>Translation. They develop skills in translating one group’s knowledge into another’s insight.
Combined these three advantages give an individual an overall vision advantage to see, create, and take advantage of opportunities.

Understanding the nature of brokering, and how the power of networks is not so much about the strength of any single network — but in how we connect into and leverage our multiple networks — you begin to understand the importance of social networking.

Working like a network leverages the people we know, the processes and business systems that we participate in, and the technology at our fingertips to give us access to more data, more content, more of the collective capabilities of everyone that is connected within these networks — than we could ever hope to achieve in the old peer-to-peer model of collaboration.

To work like a network means that each of us acts like a broker, adding value to the clusters in which we participate — and then connecting data and people and ideas across clusters, translating each body of knowledge for those other networks.

Working like a network is not an empty platitude or marketing slogan. Working like a network is a collaboration imperative — which is why you’ll find it at the center of Microsoft’s collaboration strategy. And if you’ve ever “lost” a document within SharePoint, think about how leveraging your network (and through brokering, other networks) to assign additional context and content and metadata through social interactions — all of which will make our content more searchable and more findable.

At the end of my session, I always like to point people toward three of my favorite books on the topic of social collaboration. Definitely great reads if you’re passionate about the topic as I am: