Network holes and how to plug themPosted: July 31, 2013
Notes on the practice of innovation and technology commercialization.
“There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza…” A children’s song with obscure origins in 18th century Germany.
My last blog discussed strong and weak links in networks. We should now talk about how to connect networks and what is meant by a network ‘hole.’
Networks, like the bucket in the song, may suffer from holes. In buckets holes need to be plugged; in networks, holes are bridged. In social networks they are called ‘structural holes’ formally defined by Ronald S. Burt, a leading researcher in networks and structural holes at the University of Chicago, as ‘when two separate clusters possess non-redundant [that is, complementary] information, there is said to be a structural hole between them.’ This suggests that a broker or boundary spanner – such as an entrepreneur – who bridges the hole could gain competitive advantage by engaging in information arbitrage. Connecting networks of entrepreneurs with their own strong and weak links by bridging structural holes may provide access to valuable new ideas, alternative opinion and practice, early access to new opinion, and an ability to move ideas between groups where there is an advantage in doing so.
Previously we noted evidence from Innocentive http://www.innocentive.com that as the number of unique scientific interests in the overall submitter population increased, the higher the probability that a scientific or engineering problem was successfully solved through Innocentive’s crowdsourcing method. Bridging structural holes between disconnected networks brought a diversity of potential scientific approaches to a problem and was a significant predictor of problem solving success. Innocentive and ideas coming from other industries than the seekers http://www.innocentive.com/blog/2008/07/25/5-questions-with-dr-karim-lakhani/
However, let’s control our enthusiasm because in a moment we will see that there may also be a downside.
Brokerage is about coordinating people between whom it will be valuable to trust, but where there is an inherent degree of risk. An earlier blog [http://innovationrainforest.com/2013/03/24/solving-the-right-problem-part-1/] discussed the importance of understanding context; the effectiveness, or otherwise, of brokerage is also highly dependent on context.
Much more can be found in Professor Burt’s paper Structural Holes and Good Ideas
From what was discussed in my last blog we learned that within a closed network, with many strong links, no behavior goes unnoticed. Problems may be identified early and at low cost so that non-performing people can be removed from the network. In the early 1990’s, while working in Russia on technology commercialization issues I was surprised that the organization for which I was consulting employed several people who were related to the boss. Nepotism? No, said the boss; it’s an incentive for them not to screw up and have it immediately known by their relatives and be the cause of family shame.
Mentoring for early stage companies in venture accelerators relies of having robust knowledge of the business to apply the fail-fast fail-often principle, but this will be the topic of a future blog.
A series of new studies by Dr. Yuval Kalish of Tel Aviv University suggests that, in some cases, networking can do more harm than good. “If you’re at the intersection of two previously unconnected niches of a network, you’re occupying what I call a ‘structural hole,'” says Dr. Kalish. Filling that space can lead to prestige, opportunities and power ― or it may have quite the opposite effect.
“While it’s been reported that people who occupy these structural holes become more successful, some structural holes may be ‘social potholes’ that can harm you and your business,” he warns. For example, someone who cut across formal hierarchical organizational boundaries within a company may be resented.
Finally, networks are useless unless “transactions” occur among the networked parties. Communication is a transaction – an exchange of knowledge – and is also context dependent. The six degrees of separation theory that everyone is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world is well known, but not much practical use unless at each stage a request gets transmitted. I figure I’m two links from the leader of one the world’s most powerful countries, but I very much doubt if any advice I send him would be received, and the transaction would fail.
Once when studying two linked group of researchers from a research center and a corporation in two different countries, my colleagues noticed an occasion when communications (transactions) between both groups were acting effectively, but then stopped. It was a mystery. Why? Answer: ‘culture’ prevented further transactions. The culture of the country in which the research center was located was that it was not good to transmit bad news. So, when the R&D ran into problems – completely normal and to be expected – they decided that giving no news to their corporate partners was better than giving what was perceived as bad news was the better action. Of course, from the company viewpoint it was essential for the company to know if there were problems so that the two partners could work together to correct them and proceed.
The remainder of the children’s song describes an increasingly frustrating tale of attempts to plug the bucket’s hole. Network brokers balancing cultures, transaction effectiveness and costs, trust, and so forth, may have a similar experience.
Next time: Notes on the practice of innovation and technology commercialization blog will be on vacation during August, and will return in September. Blog topics for the rest of this year will include how to create effective support ecosystems for technology transfer and commercialization in developing countries, agile commercialization systems, slow systems, and re-usable learning objects for technology transfer and commercialization.