Why You Should Care About Network Structure


When carbon atoms connect, they most commonly form molecules built on rings of six atoms. The things that are built out of these six atom rings of carbon are amazingly diverse.

Here are the structures of two of these things: graphite (A) and diamond (B):

You can see the rings in both. Same material, same basic building block, very different materials. Why? Because of their structure.

I ran across this example in Howard Rheingold’s new book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.The book is great, and I’ll talk more about it soon.

In the chapter on building network skills, Rheingold includes a quote from Nicholas Christakis, from this talk:

One of the key ideas about human social networks is that in the addition of ties between people and specific patterns of ties that obey particular mathematical rules the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The collection of human beings have properties that do not reside within the individuals, and this collection of human beings is now able to do things that they previously were not able to do. And one of the illustrations or examples that I most like to give about this is something that most people are familiar with from high school or college chemistry and that is the example of carbon. So you can take carbon atoms and you can assemble the carbon atoms into graphite and here we put particular hexagonal pattern of ties and you get sheets of graphite and this graphite is soft and dark. Or we can take the same carbon atoms and assemble them differently into a kind of a perimetral structure with the ties between them, the bonds between the carbon atoms and we get diamond, which is hard and clear and these properties of softness and darkness or hardness and clearness first of all differ dramatically, not because the carbon is different. The carbon is the same in both, but rather because of the ties between the carbon atoms. And second these properties are not properties of the carbon atoms. They’re properties of the group, properties of the collection of carbon atoms. Therefore, when we take constituent elements and assemble them to a larger whole, this larger whole can have properties that we could not have foreseen merely by studying the individual elements and properties which do not reside within the individual elements.

What does this mean for us? It means that our network structure is very important. The value of your network is not just determined by who you’re connected to, or how many people you are connected to, but also (and mainly) by the structure of these connections.

You can have the same number of connections to the same people in two different networks, and one can be like graphite, while the other is like diamonds. This has some practical implications for innovators:

  • Your network can be too connected. When I talk with managers about the networks that John and I have mapped, and how their structures are (often) not very good for information sharing, their first inclination it to try to connect everyone up with everyone else.

    This is not a good idea. When they say this, I reply with: “Imagine if you had to read every single email sent and received by every other person in your organisation. That’s what you get when you connect everyone up.”

    Most interpersonal networks work best when they have somewhere between 3 and 10% of the total number of connections that they could have if everyone was connected to everyone. This leads to the best structures for sharing information, which is critical in getting your new ideas to spread.

  • Strong Networks are Diverse. There’s no point in connecting up only with people that think the same way that you do. If you do this, you’ll just keep getting the same old ideas. You need to build links to people that are interested in different things that you are, to people that know different people than you do, and to people that view the world through a different lens than you do. That’s the best way to generate innovative new ideas.
  • Connecting people that aren’t already connected to each other is very powerful. Check out this more detailed discussion of this idea. The basic principle is that if you build the network by connecting people to each other, you make the network stronger. You give up a little bit of power, because if they stay unconnected you can act as a broker. In exchange, you gain reputation and social capital.

    Again, this helps you get your own ideas to spread.

The last point is important – when you start thinking in network terms, you start to realise that reputation and social capital are the main currencies in networks, not power. This is a critical insight. Once you understand this, you can start to build a network that fits your needs.

Graphite and diamond are two very different materials, and they fill different roles. If you’re trying to communicate by leaving marks on a piece of paper, graphite will be much more useful to you than a diamond. One of the things that John and I are learning in our research is that different network structures serve different purposes.

The network that is best for idea generation often isn’t best for idea execution. But just as graphite and diamond are made from the same thing, so are your networks: people and connections. And the structures that they form have a big impact on how you perform.

Note: Here’s a video that Rheingold made to explain the network issues he addresses in the book:

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.

8 thoughts on “Why You Should Care About Network Structure

  1. Tim,

    Wow – the application of chemistry to organisational theory is a rich one to explore for analogies – valency. covalent bonds, free floating electrons in passing current.

    I know what you are trying to say in your closing sentence but a chunk of graphite is maybe the better material than a shiny diamond :)

    • Good point about the final line Martin! I rewrote the end to make the point a bit more nuanced. Thanks!

  2. Great analogy with carbon. I loved it.
    In particular, the part that strong networks are diverse is exactly the point I’m making on my post (published tomorrow). I’ll include a reference to this post of yours.

  3. Tim,

    One comment into the mix – its a bit pedantic and doesn’t particularly apply to this post but to concepts of network in general.

    Structure I feel is too rigid a term for networks – for me it conotes more rigid, machinistic, industrial and manufactured connections – most often some form of hierarchy.

    I argue the case to use the term organisation – for me this conotes the more flexible, organic and social connections that networks can make.

    • That’s an interesting point Martin. It’s a bit strange, because the network concept is often used in opposition to hierarchy, and one of the things that is hard for me to get peoples’ heads around is that the networks do in fact differ from the formal relationships. From a research standpoint, dynamic network measurement is on the cutting edge right now, and it is possible to pick up the fluidity of network relationships. That’s one of the great advantages of network analysis as an approach.

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