What’s the best kind of network?

Ronald Burt, a sociologist and professor at the Chicago Booth School of Business, showed how people with better networks receive higher performance ratings, get promoted faster, and earn more money. So what constitutes a better network?

Social Network Analysis Graph

Social Network Analysis Graph

It’s a small world

Over the last century, mathematicians have become increasingly interested in studying different kinds of networks, trying to come up with models that emulate our experiences with networks in the real world, including social networks. The model would have to explain how, for example, most people have a relatively small set of connections, yet in study after study there seems to be only six or so degrees of separation between any two people. How and why is that possible?

In 1998 Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz came up with an explanation. In a short, dense paper titled “Collective Dynamics of ‘Small-World’ Networks,” they showed how a certain kind of network would be effective at transmitting messages while also emulating our experience in real life. Underlying the rigorous mathematics, a small-world network has two simple characteristics. The first is that such a network includes small clusters that are densely connected. Think of a group of five people where everyone is connected to everyone else. The second characteristic of small-world networks is that larger groups are sparsely connected. Think of two clusters, for example, with only one person in common.

Researchers have discovered small-world network properties in real-world phenomena ranging from electric power grids to neural networks to social networks. Why? It seems all kinds of systems are trying to optimize the efficiency of different networks, balancing the benefits of being connected with the costs of maintaining those connections. Naturally, it seems, healthy networks are comprised of a small close-knit circle that is loosely connected to other close-knit circles.

Strong and weak ties in your network

In 1973 Mark Granovetter analyzed the flow of information through social networks, and “The Strength of Weak Ties” went on to become the most cited paper in all of social science. The title was based on his assertion that people to whom we are weakly tied have different information than we normally receive because they move in different circles than our close ties. That information can be critical to us, and the example he used was finding jobs.

He cited a range of studies showing that people find out about jobs through personal contacts more than any other method. Then he conducted a study of his own and found that information that led to people finding new jobs came via people they barely knew or via the contacts of those people. Though close friends and family might be more motivated to help you find a job, being able to access different information from weak ties was much more important.

More than thirty years before Facebook was launched, Granovetter showed that having a larger, more diverse social network would improve your luck, increasing your knowledge about a broader set of possibilities and enhancing your ability to access them.

Building your own better network

The results of these two studies can help you understand what a better network might look like for you.

Networking isn't about amassing contacts or about being part of any one particular club. It’s about actively developing a diversity of relationships - diverse in the broadest sense of the word. You need a cluster of connections who trust you so you can exchange sensitive and valuable information. You also need people who are different from you—in geography, jobs, and interests—because they’ll have information and contacts that you and your strong ties don’t have.

For most people, access to opportunities is limited, based on the people they know and on luck. With purposeful development of a healthy network, you can make your own luck.