In 1973, the sociologist Mark Granovetter published a paper titled "The Strength of Weak Ties" in which he explains the value of casual ties. Granovetter analogizes weak ties to being bridges, which allow us to disseminate and get access to information that we might not otherwise have access to. In fact, Granovetter states, "all bridges are weak ties."
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The problem with strong ties is that they require a lot of effort to maintain. The theory of Dunbar's number suggests we can't usually maintain more than 150 stable social relationships. Weak ties, on the other hand, do not require a lot of effort to maintain, so we can have far more of them. Think about many of your LinkedIn connections, Twitter followers and Facebook friends. Chances are that most of these people are weak ties, and you are able to maintain thousands of them. We leverage weak ties all the time -- for example, when we send LinkedIn messages to our contacts looking for new job opportunities or when requesting introductions. Or how about when we use Twitter to share information and get our weak ties to help tweet that info out to their network? We do the same thing in person as well, where we happen to know someone that can get access to something we need -- perhaps a concert ticket, a meeting with someone, or a discount on a product or service.
[ Are you focusing on the right things? Read Collaborative Systems: Easy To Miss The Mark. ]
When two people have strong ties, they typically know many of the same people and have access to the same information. That means there is strong overlap between the two. However, when you have a weak tie with someone, this acts as a bridge to an area where you most likely don't have access to the same people and information that your weak tie contact does. In this scenario, there is not a lot of overlap.
Think about what this means today. Prior to the current generation of social and collaborative tools, there wasn't an easy way for employees to create these bridges or weak ties within their organizations. This inherently meant that we worked in silos. Now, we have access to platforms that offer capabilities such as activity feeds, status updates, rich searchable employee profiles, and internal blogs. All of these things make it easier for employees to create bridges to people and information.
Weak ties are one of the keys to collaboration in the enterprise, and today's new tools enable employees to build these ties.
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