It’s Who You Know and Don’t Know

Leadership and management within an organization must balance the tendency to get lost in the day-to-day cycle of command and control that maintains stability, with the need to build capacity to adapt and thrive in the future. Agility is an essential component of sustainability, and the mechanisms to develop and prioritize that agility must be embedded in an organization’s governance system.

Information sharing

One of the essential aspects of any governance system is the way in which information is gathered and shared within an organization. When systems are viewed as hierarchies of reporting relationships, it is easy to assume that information will flow along the paths represented in the organization chart.

However, a social network perspective on understanding how governance systems actually operate demonstrates the critical importance of informal lines of communication that exist among often disparate members of an organization. These informal pathways are established on a variety of criteria, such as similarities in age, educational background, ethnic heritage, hobbies, musical tastes, among other factors.

Within an organization, these informal relationships have the potential to both reinforce and undermine existing reporting structures and information sharing practices. They also tie individuals to a number of social groups outside the organization — places where essential values and world views are established and maintained.

This is an important point. Mapping the informal social network of an organization can demonstrate the magnitude and diversity of the external components that constitute the multi-faceted and extended composition of a governance system.

Weak ties

Back in 1973, Mark Granovetter introduced a key insight into the often counter-intuitive way in which social networks operate. When individuals are seeking new information, Granovetter demonstrated that immediate family members, close friends, and co-workers are not the best sources to turn to. Rather, it is people outside your proximate network, who may be linked to people you know through some common element that you do not share.

So, for example, if you are looking for a new job, your close associates share a common stock of knowledge with you, and so are unlikely to be aware of opportunities that you are not also aware of. However, perhaps someone they play sports with, for example, may know of potential opportunities in an area outside your sphere of normal activity. This phenomenon is known as the strength of weak ties.

Strong ties

Alternatively, Krackhardt (1992) and others have shown that in situations where change is rapid and information is complex, utilizing strong ties will actually result in more efficient access to what is new. In some areas (e.g., scientific research, financial markets), it is extremely difficult for any one individual to keep track of everything that is going on, let alone have time to figure out precisely what implications recent developments might have for them.

Consequently, individuals must rely on the group to collectively monitor and interpret the flow of information. It is the ability to access and build upon a collective stock of knowledge that will provide the opportunity — the strength of strong ties.

Krackhardt explains that trust is a critical component in establishing strong ties. Friends or colleagues develop trust when they engage in meaningful social interaction (personal sharing rather than mere work-related communication), develop a level of affection for, or affinity with, one another, and continue to interact over an extended period of time.

Comfort with contradiction

If our objective is to establish governance systems for organizations that are sustainable — ones that will facilitate the expansion of capacity to act — then it is important for members of the organization to learn to accept and work with these two seemingly contradictory characteristics of networks.

If too much effort is put into solidifying existing ties, a type of collective closed-mindedness (groupthink) may develop. A closed information loop will deteriorate with time, as its potential to contribute to personal development and to support social interaction is exhausted. Similarly, if the focus is always outward, the penchant for novelty and alternative facts will jeopardize the ability of those within the organization to build a resilient critical mass of knowledge and skills.

This isn’t merely a question of balance. It is a challenge of simultaneity. As F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked in an Esquire Magazine article (The Crack-Up) in February 1936:

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Take out the word intelligence and substitute the words manager, leader, colleague, citizen, or friend.

Please share this post with your friends and colleagues, and let me know your thoughts.

Originally published at on August 6, 2016.