Anatomy of a Social Network
Network researcher Ron Burt has identified two types of activities that create value in small-world networks: brokerage and closure.
Brokerage is about developing the weak ties: building bridges and relationships between clusters. Brokers are in a position to see the differences between groups, to cross-pollinate ideas, and to develop the differences into new ideas and opportunities.
Closure is about developing the strong ties: building alignment, trust, reputation and community within the clusters. Trust-builders are in a position to understand the deep connections that bond the people together and give them common identity and purpose.
These two kinds of activity, bridging and trust-building, demonstrate two very different ways that people and organizations can bring value to a network: Bridging leads to innovation and trust-building leads to group performance. The value that comes from these activities is known as social capital. Like every other form of capital, social capital represents stored value—in this case, relationship value—that can be translated into meaningful and tangible benefits. The power of an individual node in any network can be considered along three dimensions: Degree, closeness and betweenness.
Degree is the number of connections a node has to other nodes; for example the number of people in your family, or on your team at work, or the number of “friends” attached to your Facebook account. For an organization it could be the number of sales affiliates or business partners.
The value of a high degree is potential: the potential to connect and interact with a great number of other nodes in the network.
Closeness is a measure of how easily a node can connect with other nodes. For example you are probably very close to your team at work because it’s easy to connect to them: you can contact any person at any time. But you might be further away from other people in your company. Some you might be able to catch by walking down the hall or popping into their office, while to see others you might need an appointment, or you might need to be introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Anyone who has tried to make a connection on LinkedIn knows that the greater the distance, the harder it is to make a connection.
The value of closeness is ease of connection: The shorter the distance between you and other nodes, the fewer network “hops” you need to make, the easier it is for you to make connections when you need to.
Betweenness indicates the degree to which a node forms a bridge or critical link between other nodes. For example, many executives are protected from distractions by executive assistants or secretaries who act as gatekeepers, who control access to the executive’s time and attention.
The value of betweenness is the power you have to block or grant access to others. The more nodes that depend on you to make connections for them, the greater your potential value to them and thus the greater your power.
Thus, the most powerful person or organization in any network is one that has a high number of potential connections, all of which are relatively close and thus easily accessible, while at the same time enjoying a position within the network such that it can choose to block or grant access to other nodes.