As we sit indoors, we continue staying up-to-date about what’s going on in our respective industries, tracking competition and prospective customers. Maybe you attend a webinar (or a dozen), put hours into digging up information about companies that interest you, and every morning, read through your Google News alters. You then organize this information in an Excel doc, CRM or your mental map.
With all this hard work, why is it that some of the most exciting connections you make with other people come out of random encounters at the airport (or nowadays, web-forums)? Let’s look at this from a standpoint of Social Network Analysis (SNA), an application of graph theory from computer science.
Humans by nature are social creatures. We enjoy the feeling of being both included in a close-knit community [aka “closure”] and making new connections [aka “brokerage”]. These two dynamics are (unsurprisingly) opposites and counter to each other, however describe personal and B2B networking quite well. This dynamic is described well inRonald Burt’s book, “Brokerage and Closure.” Let’s walk through an example.
Think back to your college friend clique, let’s say in the US. You had inside jokes that only your small group of friends would understand. And, that was great. Any new person to the group would just not understand why the word “St. Louis” would kick off a laughing riot. Meanwhile, in India, there is a duo-friend friend group who loves the show “Big Bang Theory,” with their own shared interests. Both groups experience a dynamic called closure (pg 3–1), or strong alignment among members of a community around some common understandings or culture.
At some point, you took a trip to India, not expecting to easily find people who share your personal interests. While at a local cafe, you meet some hilarious locals who happen to share one of your interests, the “Big Bang Theory.”
When you come back home, you decide to introduce your newly-found friends to your clique back home. This dynamic is called brokerage (pg 1–3), or the act of connecting two distinct communities, forging a connection across a “structural hole” in the network.
Return to Closure
And now, let’s see how this introduction takes hold. There are 3 possible outcomes in steady-state:
The two groups all become friends and now form a single, new clique.
The two groups do not find much in common and you can stay friends with the newly found travel buddies. You personally are part of both networks, but your the friends in either one are not. There may be continuous tension for you in pressure to stick with one of the two.
After the “honeymoon” phase is over, you realize you actually don’t have much in common with your new travel buddies. Everything returns back to as it was. Likely, there was not enough shared interest from the beginning to form new, strong bonds over shared culture.
Implications for Businesses
This dynamic doesn’t only exist at the individual level, it also exists at the corporate level. Every wonder why it’s hard for your organization to span into a different industry or region? How about why you trust someone who is introduced to you via a friend more so than an inbound request coming in cold? The same dynamics of brokerage and closure come into play in the ever-evolving networks of trust among companies.
Next question is — how do we accelerate the process of finding those connections that will end up being successful?