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.Ronald S. Burt, “Structural Holes and Good Ideas,” American Journal of Sociology 110, no. 2 (September 2004): 356. https://doi.org/10.1086/421787
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?