The strength of weak ties

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

It may not sound very serious, but in some ways, mass communication was invented thanks to wine. In the 15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg invented modern movable type printing, he did it because he decided to apply the concept of the wine screw press to the world of book printing. That German blacksmith created a link between two different universes and changed the future of human communication forever. Arthur Koestler said that what sets geniuses apart is not the perfection of their work, rather its originality, “the opening of new frontiers”. And Gutenberg knew how to open them.

Stories like that are used frequently to set an example of how important interdisciplinary contact, the mutual “contamination” of “naturally disconnected” areas or with theoretically “non-essential” relationships, is for innovation. Although we are not trying to be geniuses, the level of circulation and exchange of ideas and knowledge in an organization conditions its creative or innovative potential.

Sociology has come to support this approach with works such as that of Mark Granovetter, American sociologist at Stanford University, who in 1973 formulated this theory on “the strength of weak ties.” While many systematic models until then had looked at primary, small and well-defined groups (in which solid relationships had prevailed), Granovetter decided to focus his studies on the relationship between subgroups or subcultures with major differences and weak ties. And though that study took place during the 1970s and used urban communities as its research focus, its conclusions continue to be applicable nowadays and are often used to explain the tremendous potential of social networks.

Granovetter’s theory maintains that the relationships between individuals with weak ties generate more innovation that those held between individuals with a more constant and related relationships. The reason is that they act as a bridge for transmitting information and knowledge among closed communities and add more ingredients to the innovation stock pot, required for the continuous circulation of ideas to produce a good stock.

The groups that are closely tied and share a value system tend to be more inclined to a consensus without questioning, a rather unfruitful scenario for ideas. “The fewer indirect contacts one has” – says Granovetter – “the more encapsulated he will be in terms of knowledge of the world beyond his own friendship circle.” While, conversely, “those to whom we are weakly tied are more likely to move in circles different from our own and will then have access to information different from what we receive”. Logically, Granovetter continues, “one can be a liaison between two network sectors only if all his ties into one or both are weak”.

And there lies the paradox and the value of those ties, which were seen rather differently until that time by sociology. Louis Wirth, American sociologist of the Chicago school who had studied in the 1930s the differences between rural and urban life, reached the conclusion that the relationships between individuals in cities were secondary (pure “weak tie”) and, hence, superficial and “producers of alienation.” Granovetter’s approach added an important nuance to that thinking, trying to explain that those “trivial” relationships can be valuable as they contribute to breaking down profoundly anti-creative structure barriers.

In the modern business world, cultivating those weak ties becoming vitally important. The permeability between areas and departments is more than just a style in a time where collaboration is prevailing as the antidote to daily difficulties. Emphasis is usually placed on the idea that the employees who are capable of providing innovative solutions are those that share information “beyond their cubicle”, as they act as “bridges” and share that type of weak ties. However, in order for that to happen, the context needs to facilitate it.

Here several factors come into play, including enterprise social networks. Without a doubt, they represent meeting places for different “subcultures” in a company, which can give rise to innovative convergences. However, in organizations that have been installed with a traditional operating system, there are barriers that cannot be broken down by merely implementing an application or redistributing the space. As Ana Asuero pointed out in a recent post on this blog, Tools won’t dictate whether a company is social or not; that is something defined by the company’s “being”.”

Weak ties have a major innovative potential and enterprise social networks are here to help them emerge, but promoting them and taking advantage of all of their possibilities is not a question of procedures, but fundamental, a question of corporate culture. Is your company culturally prepared to encourage those weak ties? How are you going about it? Tell us about it in the comments!

Sources: GRANOVETTER, Mark S. (1973). “The Strength of Weak Ties”, en American Journal of Sociology; vol 78, nº 6. (pp. 1360 – 1380). Johns Hopkins University.

Manel Alcalde (@manelalcalde) is a creative writer and audiovisual communicator. On his personal blog, Nionnioff, he writes about the world of creativity and communication.