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Published: August 28, 2006

 
 

On Trust and Culture

Five books about social networks explore the importance of “who you know.”

Photograph montage by Steve Moors
The old bromide is truer than ever. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And it’s especially who knows you. The emergence and influence of a whole new breed of social networks is a rapidly growing phenomenon. Moreover, a number of people are paying attention to social networks — not just anthropologists, but historians, business leaders, and a host of teenagers.

In large part, we can thank — or blame — the Internet. Despite its vast size and complexity, the Internet has turned out to be a profoundly personal venue. People around the globe are forming connections based on every conceivable common interest, from the serious and practical to the outright silly. In 2005, the 80-million-member networking Web site MySpace, a gathering place where people introduce themselves publicly to friends and strangers, received more page views than Google. And the movement continues to grow.

It was only 40 years ago that the social psychologist Stanley Milgram published the results of his “small world” experiments, demonstrating that a person could be connected to any stranger in the United States by a remarkably short chain of “I-know-someone-who-knows-someone.” Those experiments, which inspired the phrase “six degrees of separation,” were a revelation in the 1960s. By now, general awareness of the density of personal connection has become so entrenched in the culture that the concept is perhaps best known as a pop culture cliché: “six degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

To understand the significance of this concept for individuals and organizations, one must turn to a relatively new field of study: social network analysis (or, as it is sometimes called when applied to structured groups, organizational network analysis). There are many books on this subject, but five stand out as particularly relevant. All five books demonstrate how advances in transparent technology and ubiquitous media have led to an unprecedented shift in the role of networks in human culture. All of our traditional social skills developed from being close to one another physically, not virtually. Now we will need to rely upon trust more than ever before to interact with people on the other side of the world.

The first book of the five, published in 2000, has become a standard: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown, 2000). The second is a solid new book: Karen Stephenson’s The Quantum Theory of Trust: The Secret of Mapping and Managing Human Relationships (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2006). The third book is a groundbreaking but overlooked academic treatise that laid out the methods of network research more than 20 years ago: Structural Models in Anthropology (Cambridge University Press, 1983), by Per Hage and Frank Harary. The fourth is a managerial handbook for applying these techniques in business: Rob Cross and Andrew Parker’s The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations (Harvard Business School Press, 2004). And finally, there’s a recent historical review by Pamela Walker Laird, Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin (Harvard University Press, 2006), which tracks the hidden influence of social networking from the American Revolution onward.

Anatomies of Contagion
Malcolm Gladwell’s book popularized the useful and now nearly ubiquitous term “the tipping point,” which in epidemiology describes “that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once,” Mr. Gladwell writes. He examines a similar phenomenon in culture. Small factors, ideas, or behaviors gather momentum and become contagious. When they reach critical mass — a tipping point — they become epidemic. Mr. Gladwell’s experience writing about AIDS for the Washington Post convinced him that change is about the “law of the few.” He realized the disproportionately powerful role that a small group of people can have in moving along any kind of infectious entity: an epidemic, a new way of doing things, the buzz about a new product, or a fad of any kind. Using this model, he shows how the crime rate can drop in a city or how Sesame Street can spread all over the world, with the infectious entity traveling across nothing more than informal communications, one person at a time.

 
 
 
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Social Networking Resources:
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Rob Cross and Andrew Parker, The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), 304 pages, $29.95
  2. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, 2000), 279 pages, $25.95
  3. Per Hage and Frank Harary, Structural Models in Anthropology (Cambridge University Press, 1983, out of print), 201 pages
  4. Pamela Walker Laird, Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin (Harvard University Press, 2006), 439 pages, $29.95
  5. Karen Stephenson, The Quantum Theory of Trust: The Secret of Mapping and Managing Human Relationships (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2006), 256 pages, $41.30
  6. International Network for Social Network Analysis’s list of networking resources: Click here.