Why Your 'Weak' Relationships Pack Strength - InformationWeek

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Jacob Morgan
Jacob Morgan
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Why Your 'Weak' Relationships Pack Strength

The tightest relationships are not the most powerful when we need to broaden our reach within the organization.

Often, we focus on building strong relationships with people. After all, the better we know someone and the stronger the relationship is, the more valuable it is for us, right? These are our strong ties. It's a bit counter-intuitive, but in the workplace it is not the strong ties that are the most beneficial. Weak ties -- acquaintances or people that you might not know that well -- can be far more valuable.

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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Deb Donston-Miller
Deb Donston-Miller,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/9/2012 | 12:10:48 PM
re: Why Your 'Weak' Relationships Pack Strength
I've found that social is a great relationship equalizer, or maybe it's a relationship shape shifter. Depending on the topic, I might go back and forth a few times with someone I know only casually but not hear at all from someone I've worked with for years. Does that make my relationship with the former stronger, while weakening my relationship with the latter? It's also interesting to take into consideration what non-social-networking-based interactions do to strengthen/weaken overall ties.

Deb Donston-Miller
Contributing Editor, The BrainYard
Rosemary ONeill
Rosemary ONeill,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/29/2012 | 4:34:00 PM
re: Why Your 'Weak' Relationships Pack Strength
Also, it's weak ties that eventually become strong ties. You need to keep feeding the well with weak ties in order to start fostering strong ties where you can.
User Rank: Apprentice
11/20/2012 | 9:45:32 PM
re: Why Your 'Weak' Relationships Pack Strength
Great article! On social networks, which thrives on "you scratch my back i scratch yours", weak ties can be much more open to sharing information and contributing to your efforts than one would expect.
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