Friday, 21 September 2007

Collaboration and the strength of ties

People's ability to form co-operative networks has since the dawn of time enabled them to survive and progress. The history of the human species points to an ability to form coherent networks from which members derive particular benefits. In fact, the size of the human cortex suggests that unlike any other species on the planet, we have the mental capacity to sustain social networks of considerable size and complexity. The continued energy we put into our relations stem from a belief and proof in the tangible and intangible benefits of collaboration and sharing: it works because of mutual trust and reciprocity. Collaboration being the key, the transferal of knowledge and skills have all along been an integral part of human existence. Collingwood (1993) states in The Idea of History:

"Man has been defined as an animal capable of profiting by the experience of others. Of his bodily life this would be wholly untrue: he is not nourished because another has eaten, or refreshed because another has slept. But as regards his mental life it is true and the way in which this profit is realized is by historical knowledge. The body of human thought or mental activity is a corporate possession and almost all the operations which our minds perform are operations which we learned to perform from others who have performed them already." (p. 226)
Learning from others takes on many forms, such as storytelling. Storytelling and recall are prominent in communities of practice, a term Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger pioneered in their book, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (1991). They theorize that knowledge is developed through social and spontaneous communities that are driven by common interests and passions. However, it stands to reason that such communities have been present all along. Examples abound, such as the formation of guilds in Medieval Europe.

Communities and social networks are best understood through Social Network Analysis (SNA). Kilduff and Tsai in Social Networks and Organizations clarify network analysis: concepts, terms and usage. On a network level, reference to terms such as density, centrality, reachability and balance are used. Tie-level concepts include strength of ties, reciprocity, and multiplexity. Other terms such as cluster, clique, star, and bridge provide concepts with which to interpret and describe findings based on network data. Amongst others, betweeness and distance or the nature of ties such as weak and strong ties or variations like bridging weak ties, have particular meaning for analysts.

With the advent of the Internet and the stellar rise of social networking recently, an understanding of social network analysis has become more prominent. A site like LinkedIn for example uses SNA by providing members with network analytical descriptions of their links with others (degrees); corporations like IBM and Microsoft use SNA to develop new solutions aimed at social network optimization, improved data mining and expert locators, amongst others. Readers of this blog might want to add more examples by posting a comment.

It is, however, my interest in collaborative learning, online social networks such as LinkedIn and the rise of vast networks of practice that have led me to renew my interest in Granovetter's original hypothesis about the strength of weak ties. In no small part has Charles Handy's views of a portfolio life, as outlined in The Elephant and the Flea and ideas about our existence in the new age as expressed in The Age of Unreason contribute to my rekindled interest. After all, the Internet has made some predictions and visions about the future of work possible, as described by various authors towards the second half of the 20th century.

There are of course questions galore: Why are social networking sites so successful at this point in time? Given statistics on social networks sites, why are people expanding their networks at such a relentless pace? What new social skills do we need to acquire in order to maintain these vast networks of predominantly weak ties? Why does it work? How different are our online networks from our offline networks? At what point do they mesh? What characterizes people's social networks at the first quarter of the 21st century? How does it influence the spread of social capital? What do people derive from their expansive global networks of interests and practices?

While these and many other questions are being investigated by scores of professional researchers from a wide range of disciplines, my own inquiry at this point it time stems from an interest in the real value people derive from their vast online social networks. Clearly, participants gain access to information and expertise not available locally. Furthermore, they can interact informally and free from the constraints of hierarchy and local rules which, like the invention of the printing press, freed knowledge and information. It surely gave people the opportunity to form their own opinions.

When Granovetter reflected on the nature of ties in 1973 he shed new light on networks and the effect of position in a network, but more importantly the effect of bridging weak ties. Recently revisited, he contends that there is merit in strong ties too, such as those found in kinships, families and close friends, amongst others. However, there is enough evidence to suggest that weak ties carry with them tremendous potential , in particular bridging weak ties. Related to job changers, Granovetter states:

At a more mundane level, I argued (SWT, pp. 1369-1373; 1974, pp. 51-62) that weak ties have a special role in a person's opportunity for mobility -- that there is a structural tendency for those to whom one is only weakly tied to have better access to job information one does not already have.

Although I don't consider the aspect of social network sites and job hunters here, Granovetter's hypothesis has a particular bearing on my interest in the value people derive from their weak ties. However, of interest amongst an array of other studies is "The Web of Knowledge: An Investigation of Knowledge Exchange in Networks of Practice" in which Samer Faraj and Molly McLure Wasko explore the knowledge exchange processes in extra-organizational networks of practice by studying three technical newsgroups. In this study they outline the influence of the nature of ties and as could be expected, they too refer to and use Granovetter's original ideas about weak ties.

What will follow in time is a more in-depth investigation of assistance and trust, help from strangers and reciprocity as influential determinants in collaborative networks and the spread of social capital.

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Thursday, 30 August 2007

Of Fleas and Elephants

Elephants and Fleas: Not something that one always associates with one another, and neither a fiddler on one's roof. Having seen a production of this much acclaimed play recently at the Nelson Mandela Civic Theatre in Johannesburg, I recalled Charles Handy writing about progress and change -- a recurring theme throughout his works. By allowing us a glimpse into his own life, which he describes as a portfolio consisting of various categories, he reminds us that no new technologies will alter the dilemma we have with progress. In fact it might get more difficult.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama reminds us in The Art of Happiness that change is part of life. While change is fraught with difficulties which is necessary for growth, one needs to leave room for vantage points, perspectives and perceptions to decide how difficult we perceive our existence to be. For many, however, capitalism and the modern world have not delivered on its promise for "the good life". Surely the culminating effects of upbringing and background, health, age, gender, class, skills and abilities, adaptability, geographical location and citizenship amongst others, affect peoples' ability to live successfully in the world of the elephants or as fleas, an analogy Handy uses. (See Deepa's blog for an explanation of this analogy).

In a seemingly borderless world where some elephants, following Handy's analogy, are worth more than the GNP's of certain countries, profound changes are inevitably impacting on individuals. However, the historical roots of the current wave of change brought about in part by the spread of technologies such as the Internet and Web 2.0 should not come as a surprise, hinting and a continuation of events along a historical continuum. At what point changes represent a break in history is open for discussion.

One problem Handy explores about his portfolio life away from the elephants is that of being disconnected. Is it possible that online social networking has become an integral part of people's lives for the very reason that so many feel disconnected? Or has the concept friend broaden to such an extent that more or less anybody can request to be included? Danah Boyd remarked on the problem with this state of affairs. In the past identity, status, security and social interaction were part and parcel with one's employment in a company; detachment from the safety and confines of a company necessitates new forms of expression, connection and confirmation.

Participation in social networks stems from our ability and need to belong -- a prominent characteristic of human nature. Since places of work fulfil a very definite social role too, living as a flea has the real potential to be isolated. Without an ability to adapt or find new ways to stay connected, a flea-like existence can easily lead to a state of non-belonging, something I would like to equate to being an invisible citizen. However, Handy makes an apt statement in The Elephant and the Flea: " What is true for me is true for every flea, young or old. The tension between wanting to belong and needing to be free never goes away" (p 156).

Clearly people's social skills and requirements differ. In recent years changing needs (amongst many other reasons) have led to a redefinition of relations between employer and employee. This has inter alia manifested in new forms of social interaction too with the introduction of flexi time, more time away from the office and working from home. In general, however, grasping the potential brought about by technologies and planning our lives accordingly necessitates a strategy which in turn brings into question the very reason for being.

In many respects, the manner in which the Internet affects every aspect of our existence and the new forms of participation it enables require careful thinking about its impact, possibilities and threats. This is pertinent, especially if one considers that the bricks and mortar part of our lives can become an infitesimal part of our existence.

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