I left home in a hurry As I packed five large suitcases and several smaller bags Told my children about the adventure we were going on Squeezed my husband’s hand as we walked through the departure gate Buckled up, took off, flew through time zones, and arrived all worn out By the weight and clunk of our belongings With the faintest memory of home
I left friendships behind As they wrapped up the loose ends Over food and drink and gifts Frozen in time, intact over the distance Their names scattered across the Facebook feed Their words and photos filling the tedium of mindless addiction Numbing the years that accumulate
I let it go The security of approval The unrelenting pursuit of success The opinion of masses motivated by greed The moral compass that has gone off course The unquestioning loyalty to the hand that feeds us And now I start from scratch
I am building a new home With a vision and a hope Through rough waves of emotion Pausing for deliverance Breaking through walls of disappointment Settling for makeshift comforts The foundation is barely finished
I got lost on my way home I found myself a stateless creature Plastered with labels that justify my existence Responsible for the outlandish dream that got us here Paying the price for stretching across borders Confiding in those who don’t take offence at me Now looking for the breadcrumbs the birds left alone
People whose networks span structural holes have early access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations, which gives them a competitive advantage in seeing good ideas. To be sure, ideas come over a variety of paths from a variety of sources …, but idea generation at some point involves someone moving knowledge from this group to that, or combining bits of knowledge across groups.
The quote comes from American sociologist Ronald Burt who is well known for his research on how social networks create competitive advantage in careers, organisations, and markets. Burt’s concept of ‘structural holes’ derives from the broader concept of brokerage in social network theory. Brokerage or brokering refer to individuals (ie brokers) who provide access to information, knowledge, and resources that others would otherwise find difficult to obtain.
My recent PhD research on advice-seeking (brokering) practices of first year international students used similar concepts from social network theory, particularly theories of strong and weak ties, and the dynamics of brokering relationships. My research was in the context of newcomers seeking information and advice from knowledge brokers in a culturally foreign environment. My key takeaways were: – strong ties were often with peers with similar cultural backgrounds – weak ties were more socially/physically distant but led to information that strong ties did not have – peer relations were more accessible than non-peer relations.
Social network theory in action
Translating my findings to my work context of the public sector, I see similar patterns of behaviour in my role as an operational policy advisor. The culturally foreign environment in this case is the unfamiliarity or ambiguity of issues that come through my inbox. Notwithstanding my relative brief time with my organisation, being able to tackle issues often requires different areas of expertise. No one person has the full picture, and often the solution is reached through iterative discussions.
Turning to myself as a case study, I present some observations of how social network theory plays out in my work of gathering information. In the current situation of quickly evolving scenarios related to the lockdown, the complexity of issues are heightened, demand for advice has tighter deadlines, and access to the right brokers at the right time become crucial to timely solutions.
Recently I had to gather information about a policy issue that required information from different agencies. Under ordinary circumstances, I would look to immediate colleagues for quick leads (which typically involved walking over to someone’s desk to ask a quick question), and use their established connections to get to contacts at other organisations.
With remote working, gone were the incidental and casual conversations and serendipitous kitchen chats. The pressure of tight deadlines forced me to head straight for the most likely useful colleague. Thankfully, this was someone whom I had forged a good working relationship with over coffee chats, in other words, a strong tie.
Some advice and one contact later, however, I faced a roadblock. I then found myself turning to my cross-agency network of peers whom I worked with on various groups and projects. These were my weak ties – those who I interacted with much less frequently than workplace colleagues, but whose positions in other agencies opened up channels beyond my immediate reach. They were able to field my query further than I could on my own and in a much shorter time.
At the same time, these weak ties had the advantage of being peer relations. I find it difficult to make cold calls to designated senior level experts and managers – hierarchy doesn’t flatten easily when you haven’t had a few coffees. But I found it easy to reach out to my cross-agency peers – we had ongoing work projects, often helped each other with requests, and perhaps we shared an implicit bond of doing the work of brokering – plugging the knowledge gaps and giving the best advice we possibly can.
Policy advising as social network theory
My information seeking behaviour as a policy advisor can be summed up in Burt’s words: ‘… idea generation at some point involves someone moving knowledge from this group to that, or combining bits of knowledge across groups’. Generating good ideas and sound advice would not be possible without tapping on strong ties with workplace colleagues, weak ties with sector wide peers, and cultivating reciprocal relationships with like-minded public servants.
Perhaps policy advising could be reframed as maximising the opportunities presented by structural holes. Using our networks generates more leads and different perspectives. Growing our networks will be the gift that keeps on giving. How else can we solve the wicked problems of our day?
Loose Leaves is a collection of poems written between 1994 and 1998, that is, between the ages of 17 and 21. Poetry then looked like an indulgence of heady emotion through words and awkward phrases. (Maybe it is still the case today!)
Instead of using Canva to create a book, I’m trying out Google docs with links to each poem and the contents page. A two-page and mobile-friendly pdf version are also available.
Only just last week, life in Aotearoa New Zealand was about being ultra conscious about staying home if sick, washing hands, and being alert to symptoms of COVID-19. From today and moving forward into an indefinite period, it looks like we will have to live in a constant state of heightened awareness and adopt new practices of reduced contact and socialising.
Ordinarily I would be disgruntled at disruptions, upset at being inconvenienced through no fault of mine. But this situation is far from ordinary, in fact, simply extraordinary and unprecedented. It first caused me the typical anxiety about keeping well and protecting myself and my family. But now as the world enters into extreme measures of border control and social directives, my anxiety has turned into more of an uneasy calm. Uneasy because I know the worst thing to do is to be anxious and indulge in panic buying and behaviours; but not ever sure that I am doing enough to do the ‘best’ thing like washing hands and avoiding crowds.
How does one do ‘social distancing’ and keep sane about not being in the company of others? Perhaps my introverted friends welcome the prospect of avoiding the world and all its filth. But for me, I’m trying out alternatives to handshakes and hugs – smiles, awkward gestures and the like. Working from home will be encouraged and while I welcome not having to journey to and fro on the train, I know I will miss the hum of busy minds and bodies about me.
To use a musical term, it feels we have reached a long pause (or a fermata) on a note that was meant to lead on to the next, but holding back for longer than usual. According to the Wikipedia definition, “[e]xactly how much longer it is held is up to the discretion of the performer or conductor, but twice as long is common.” If we are the performers, we take the cue from our country’s leaders, the conductor. Twice as long is probably not long enough, but if we want the music to continue playing, we’ll have to keep on holding the note.
While on this pause, I’ve begun to think about who I want to hang out with, who I could do without, and my obligations to my family if any of us should have to self-isolate. I have learnt to welcome disruption as a way to shine a light on my taken-for-granted values, re-consider knee-jerk reactions, and actually learn how to chill.
For the most part, I would like to be able to meet with people and have conversations. But perhaps they would all soon like to avoid meeting others and making unnecessary contact. And I would probably be persuaded to do so as well. Maybe we do it in the name of self-preservation and keeping the community safe. Maybe we seek solace in avoidance. But we will do what we will be conditioned to do, by political will, by common sense, by social pressure.
May we find the long pause a gift – a gift of restraint to help us become better versions of ourselves when the music resumes.
The poems in Journal Notes feature a different life season from those in Nine at 35 which were written almost eights years ago. I am startled to realise how I’ve grown weary of family life and take the opportunity to escape ever so briefly for coffee and solitude.
My personal fav is ‘Dreaming of Castlepoint’. I initially had ‘a sonata in ten movements’ as a subtitle, but realised it was more dramatic than soothing piano music. ‘An operetta in ten scenes’ felt more appropriate for the highs and lows of a family outing.