Having long been exposed to the concepts of ONA & SNA in my organization, I was interested to read Shirky's Chapter 9, with its references to the "Small World network" concept of Duncan Watts & Steve Strogatz, and the Six Degrees of Separation.
"Small World networks have two characteristics that, when correctly balanced properly, let messages move through the network effectively.
The first is that small groups are densely connected. In a small group the best pattern of communication is that everyone connects with everyone.
The second ... is that large groups are sparsely connected ... As the size of your network grew, your small group pattern, where everyone connected to everyone, would become first impractical, then unbuildable .... if you let everyone continue to maintain a handful of connections as the network grew, any two people pulled at random would have a long chain of links between them, far longer than six links, in fact. Such a network would be unusable, since the people in it would hardly be connected together." p 215
"So what do you do ? You adopt both strategies - dense and sparse - at different scale. You let the small groups connect tightly, and then you connect the groups." p 216
"But you can't really connect groups - you connect people within groups ... the network will be sparse but efficient and robust..." p 216
"A handful of people are extremely critical to holding the whole network together, because as the network grows large, the existence of a small number of highly connected individuals enables the tradeoff between connectivity and effectiveness that makes the Small World pattern work in the first place" p 217
These are Malcolm Gladwell's "connectors" ("The Tipping Point") - they are different - perhaps an understanding of the work of Myer Briggs on Personality Types could help here ?
The engineering & technology part of my organization had undertaken a knowledge sharing project in 2004, which kicked off with a knowledge sharing cultural audit and also ONA. There were no surprises with the most highly connected folks - but therein lay the vulnerability - they were babyboomers who could be expected to retire within 5 to 10 years. Interventions were needed to avoid fracturing tightly networked groups and separating existing sparsely connected groups. An intervention was undertaken - Stage 2 of our knowledge sharing project - to create alternative connections. It worked ... according to a followup ONA undertaken several years later. Now key connectors have retired and it would be desirable to do a Stage 3 of the project ... but is on hold for the duration of the GFC.
"Small World networks operate as both amplifiers and filters of information. Because information in the system is passed along by friends and friends of friends... people tend to get information that is also of interest to their friends... things that none of your friends or their friends care about are unlikely to get to you." p 221
Helping things along according to Shirky is "social capital" : bonding capital & bridging capital
"Bonding capital is an increase in the depth of connections within a relatively homogeneous group.... tends to be more exclusive ... creating an echo chamber effect" according to Ronald Burt p 222 - 231 - perhaps at risk of occurring in Teams, especially where there is no one playing "Devils Advocate" ?
"Bridging capital is an increase in connections among relatively heterogeneous groups ... tends to be more inclusive ... and at greater risk of having good ideas " p 222 - 231 - more enhanced within communities, as opposed to teams perhaps (refe Stan Garfield's Communities Manifesto - Principle 5 - "Communities should span boundaries; they should cross functions, organizations, and geographic locations")
We sometimes found that the person who was the designated wise sage or guru wasn't necessarily the best connector - although they could be - and then they could be at risk of creating a bottleneck due to shear overload of requests for assistance.
Social media tools such as MySpace and Facebook, to a degree also LinkedIn, help with connectivity with "perhaps the most significant effect of our new tools ... (lying) in the increased leverage they give the most connected people.
The tightness of a social network comes less from increasing the number of connections that the average member of the network can support than from increasing the number of connections that the most connected people can support." p 225
Shirky then cites Ronald Burt's 'The Social Origins of Good Ideas' : "most good ideas come from people who were bridging 'structural holes', which is to stay people whose immediate social network included employees outside their department... Second, bridging these structural holes was valuable, even when other variables... were controlled for .... bridging predicted good ideas; lack of bridging predicted bad ones " 229-231.
Shirky, quoting from Burt " People whose networks span structural holes have easy access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations which gives them a good competitive advantage in delivering good ideas. People connected to groups beyond their own can expect to find themselves delivering valuable ideas, seeming to be gifted with creativity. This is not creativity born of deep intellectual ability. An idea mundane in one group can be a valuable insight in another" p 231
Of course not everyone needs to be a connector - but it is vital to ensure a succession planning strategy is in place - for when the connectors depart or are on leave etc to minimise the risk of structural holes opening up.
Communities of Practice are one way to bridge these structural holes - especially where they link geographically dispersed COP members - all the while strengthening organizational social capital.
Ironically in my organization, inspired by Professor James Reason, we also speak about the potential for disaster looming when all the holes in the Swiss Cheese line up - so, by addressing potential "structural holes" arising from baby boomer retirements, could we also minimise the risks of the "knowledge loss" generated holes in the Swiss Cheese ?