Think ‘Network Structure’ not ‘Networking’

The biggest problem with the idea of ‘networking’ is that it is a bad idea. Why? Because as it is usually practiced, networking consists of going out and making a whole bunch of new connections, and then hoping that something good will come of them. It is much more productive to think about your position within the network as you create connections. Once we have creatively made connections between ideas (which is the core creative act in innovation), we have to get our new ideas to spread. We do this by connecting the ideas to people.

When we analyse networks, the basic assumption that we make is that network structure is important. In practical terms, what this means is that the overall structure of the network is important to how well it functions, and our personal effectiveness within our networks depends upon our positions inside those networks as much as on the number of connections that we have.

Here’s an example. One line of network research has been built around Ronald Burt’s idea of structural holes – it is discussed nicely here by danah boyd. The idea is that in large networks, there are often major clusters within them that are not connected – the gap between the clusters is a structural hole. It can be very profitable to be the one that fills that hole by connecting the two clusters. And you can fill a structural hole even if you don’t have a lot of connections – here’s an example from one of my research papers:

In this network, the actor at node 5 has a lot of power, because all information from the two clusters must pass through her. Burt’s original argument was that from an economic perspective, filling a structural hole was one of the best things that you can do. He has gone on to show that filling structural holes leads to creativity – it’s the power of connecting ideas again!

However, from a network perspective, you can see how this structure isn’t so good. There is only one path for information and ideas to pass from one cluster to the other. If this were an organisation, this would be a horrible structure to have. Valdis Krebs and June Holley talk about how to address this problem through network weaving. The key idea here is that you should try to fill triangles. Valdis illustrates the idea by telling the story of how Ed Morrison connected up two people that he knew from the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce and Commerce Lexington, who were facing similar problems.

You can see here that the triangle starts with Ed filling a structural hole. But instead of acting as a broker, he acts as a builder – and connects Lynda and Cynthia to each other by introducing them and initiating a conversation about their common problems.

The key idea in network weaving is that filling in triangles leads to better-functioning networks. The trade-offs that you get for giving up your position in a structural hole are twofold: you gain stature and social capital by connecting people up, and the network becomes more capable of generating beneficial ideas that you can use yourself. June explains this really well in her talk ‘Networks in a Networked World’, which you can find on this page.

There are a couple of key points here:

  • In both of these examples, your position in the network is much more important than the number of connections you have. This leads to the basic mistake that most people make when they are ‘networking’ – the focus on quantity. You are much better off to have a network building strategy, which you can use to weave a better-functioning network.
  • Bridging structural holes and filling in triangles can both be good business strategies – but they support different business models. Amazon’s strategy works not because they are simply an aggregator – they have very effectively positioned themselves in the structural hole between publishers and readers. Apple has done basically the same thing with iTunes. But filling in triangles also works – in many ways this is the key method for building gift economies that are driven by effective communities. This is the model used by Seth Godin, Hugh MacLeod and O’Reilly Media.
  • If you’re managing networks within an organisation, you almost certainly want to eliminate structural holes, and use the network-weaving approach instead. In the first place, unfilled structural holes are bad, so you want to get those bridged. But having only one person filling the holes can also be bad – you’ve substituted a bottleneck for a hole, which might not be much of an improvement. In most cases, you’ll want to build a more densely connected internal network, with many pathways over which ideas can flow.

To get our ideas to spread, we need to connect them with people. But doing this is not simply about volume – it’s not how many pageviews we get, or how many followers we have on twitter. Who we’re connecting to and where we sit within the network is much more important. So stop networking. Instead, start building a network.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

14 thoughts on “Think ‘Network Structure’ not ‘Networking’

  1. Really nice translation and application of network science, Tim. We should test the gift economy hypothesis on that online collaborative community data. Remember that nice paper on triangle structures in relationships between New Guinea hill tribes?

  2. Hi Tim!

    Fascinating stuff! I am hosting a workshop next week (Monday 24th) to explore community development opportunities using capoeira (an afro-brazilian art form). Reading your post has made me realise that identifying the ‘structural hole’ between community-minded capoeira players and recreationally-minded community development practitioners (and inviting them to the workshop) is only the first step; a critical aspect of the workshop will be to create an environment where participants can be connected not only to each other, but also to ideas that are meaningful and relevant to them. With the ideas from your post in mind, it is my hope that the workshop I deliver will give participants the power to creatively and organically structure a network that can support the delivery of capoeira-based leisure programs to marginalised communities.

    Thank you for sharing!


  3. Good luck with the workshop Janelle, and good luck with the program as a whole – it sounds really worthwhile. I only know a little bit about capoeira, but from what I do know it sounds awfully interesting. Thanks for the comment!

  4. You’ve nailed it. The crucial thing is (for me) that some people want/needto be the “crucial” node – classic monopoly approach. They don’t seem to realise that it’s horrifically short-term, ineffective, especially in this networked world wot we live in. The people I’m thinking of, they tend to be brittle and insecure, hoarding contacts because they don’t have anything else to really offer…

    This quote is from a PhD I read about social movements…

    “By emphasising the network form McLeish argues that the flows of information and interaction between groups and individuals are more important that (sic) the points of convergence. The ‘nodes’ – the points at which multiple flows connect – may represent a key moment during a movement’s history but have a tendency to create ossified traditions, incapable of reacting to changing political opportunities. ‘Organisers thrown up by events, who find themselves serving or surfing these waves of history narcissistically imagine themselves their authors. Last year’s bright creative movement becomes a fossilized bureaucracy or an inert ritualistic subculture.’”
    page 279

    further details here…

  5. Thanks Dwight. That’s a really interesting point about people hoarding connections – I’ve seen that too, and I agree that it is a short-sighted strategy. Still, very common.

Comments are closed.