Friday, 16 December 2011

Glory be to the Christmas card

In recent years the number of Christmas cards on my mantelpiece has noticeably declined. Maybe I did lose contact with a few people, but I think that technology is the main reason. In my inbox and Facebook feed there are ever larger numbers of seasons greetings bouncing around.

I’m not sure whether to feel nostalgic about the demise of the Christmas card. I fondly remember a childhood ritual of opening cards together, cringing at self-congratulatory round robin letters and mocking the insipid religious scenes. Christmas cards have an old-world feel now. They cause trees to be cut down, delivery vans to pollute the air and they burden the postal services. Yes they create jobs, but seasonal, antisocial jobs that fill a cash hole for December and leave it hungry in the new year. 30% of purchases make a contribution to good causes, but a more meaningful impact would be made by giving away the whole amount spent on cards. All in all, Christmas cards seem a fairly frivolous use of the world’s resources.

Frivolous they may be, but there is still a reason to send them. A study of Christmas card lists by Russell Hill and Robin Dunbar found that people send an average of 68 cards, to households comprising 150 members. A crowd of 150 is said to be the maximum number of meaningful relationships we can maintain (see Who's in your camp?). Beyond 150 things start to become impersonal; our so-called friends are more like semi-strangers because our brains simply can’t process that much social information. 

This research highlights the reason for Christmas cards. Unlike an email or text, a Christmas card remains visible for the whole festive season. A card is like a placeholder – a statement by others who are letting me know that I am still part of their crowd. Do virtual Christmas greetings do the same job? I think not, for the simple reason that the marginal effort required to send a message to 300 or even 3,000 people is minimal. A card has to be bought, written, sealed and sent. For that reason, I will treasure the cards I receive as an affirmation of my importance to the people who sent them. I hope those of you in my crowd will do the same for mine, which is shown here:

Friday, 11 November 2011

Who is in your camp?

Last week I gave a TEDx talk to 450 teenagers, on the science of social networks. In my talk, I proposed that we should think about our social networks in terms of a core, clique, camp and crowd. The camp, in my view, is critical for creativity, for reasons I will explain here.

The key point of departure for the talk was Robin Dunbar's number: 150. Dunbar argues that our brains have evolved to deal with a maximum of 150 individuals that we can really know as people. Increase your social circle beyond 150, and people start to become semi-strangers. For one thing you can't spend enough time know about them and what makes them tick. Also, each time a new person joins our group, we are programmed - Dunbar says - to monitor the relationship that person has with others in our group. As our social groups become bigger the number of potential relationships in the network increases exponentially. There is an impressive breadth of research evidence showing that 150 is natural organising unit for human groups.

Even within a group of 150, of course, we don't lavish the same amount of emotional investment on everyone. Dunbar suggests that our social groups of 150 - or what I call a crowd - is organised into layers or circles, which each layer being approximately three times larger than the previous one. We typically have 3-5 people closest to us with whom we invest a great deal of emotional energy. I call this group the 'core'. Add another 10 or so to the core and you have a 'clique' or posse - likely to include the people you are known to hang around with and those whose loss or death would be truly devastating for you. 

The next group, around 50, I refer to as a camp. I suggest this is the most important group for creative thinking, because it is the maximum number of people whose conversations, activities, online content, and offline goings-on we can pay attention to. By the same token, unless we are rich, famous or influential in the digital world, there are probably only about 50 people in our worlds who we spend enough time with that they keep abreast of what we are up to. 

Your camp is the people who will listen to what your have to say, talk to your about your ideas and challenge your thinking. Your camp may be much smaller than 50. If so, and especially if it is barely larger than your clique, you may not have much influence outside that close-knit group of friends and family, and your thinking may converge. Structure matters too. You need some members of your camp to act as weak ties to other groups if you are to be able to spread ideas and to put them into action. 

Think about the people you've been in contact with in the last month. Are they all in your neighbourhood (local to your home, all working in the same office)? Are they all part of the same personal community?  Be willing to seek new members for your camp from time to time, paying more attention to people you have not listened to for a while, and engaging them in conversation. It takes effort, but it may bring new creative insights. 

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Do your weak ties boost your creativity?

It used to be the case that social network analysis was an arcane and esoteric field of science pursued by mathematicians, sociologists and business researchers. Collecting the necessary data was often onerous, and analysing it typically required programming skills. The results of these studies were published in relatively inaccessible books and journals, for an elite readership.

Now, with tools like Facebook and LinkedIn, social networks are rendered visible and relevant. We now make conscious choices about who to connect with on LinkedIn and whether to follow someone on Google+. We are increasingly aware of whether the people we know are also connected each other. A variety of tools make is possible to visualise our social neighbourhood. In effect, we can all now be social network practitioners.

But what do we do with this new window into our social world once we have it? There are some easy knee-jerk reactions. When I first looked at my professional network on LinkedIn, I immediately concluded that it did not reflect either the size or the diversity my 'real life' network and quickly issued a batch of new invitations to connect.

What rules or principles might we apply - as social network practitioners - to manage our social neighbourhoods?

This week I had the honour of listening to a conversation between two esteemed scholars of social networks: Martin Kilduff and Rob Cross. We started the conversation by asking what managers could usefully know from the academic literature on social networks. Martin highlighted four themes that have aroused much discussion and debate: weak ties, structural holes, cognition and personality. In this and subsequent posts, I intend to examine each in turn and their importance for creativity. Here I start with weak ties.

Weak ties are useful for finding jobs. That was the important insight from Granovetter's 1973 article, and subsequent book. Granovetter argued that people you see infrequently are more fruitful sources of fresh news about job opportunities. He called these weak ties. On the other hand, so-called strong ties, people you spent time with, and to whom you feel close, are more likely to have the same friends as you do. For that reason, any news these close friends could bring you about job opportunities is likely to be information that has already been shared within your social circle.

The crux of this argument hangs on the idea that if you invest time and energy in a relationship with someone, it's likely that their friends become friends of yours too. Strong ties tend to form themselves into clumps of people who all know each other. The stronger the tie between two people, the more their social neighbourhoods overlap.

This tendency to make friends with your friends' friends does not apply to weak ties. As less social energy is invested in people we only know casually, our friendship groups don't clump together. Weak ties therefore act as bridges between clumps of closely connected people allowing news, gossip and referrals to flow between groups. A social graph like the one shown here (created using TouchGraph) can help to start thinking about where such strong-tie clumps might exist in my network.

What does this mean for creativity? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that weak ties are important for creativity. (See my last post on the Goldilocks network.) Weak ties are more likely to bring novel ideas and perspectives that can be usefully combined with what we already know to generate creative insights.

Here are two thoughts about what this means for our networks.

First, the potential access we have to our weak ties is growing. Feeds from Facebook enable us to keep up with the lives of casual acquaintances from a peripheral perspective. It is ever easier to keep track of the likes and dislikes of our more distant connections and possibly to be influenced or inspired by what they do or say. Feeds from strangers on Twitter or Google+ function as surrogate weak ties - providing snippets that lead us to discover new stuff or catch up with trending stories. In all, it's likely that we have more weak ties, and more insight in what they are up to, than people did in Granovetter's day.

That presents a challenge. Attention is increasingly a precious commodity - perhaps the most precious - in an information-loaded world. There are only so many conversations, news feeds, articles or videos we can concentrate on in one day, even with multi-tasking. How do we choose who to pay attention to? Keeping up with strong ties will happen naturally because we see them often. Which weak ties are worth paying attention to, and how often? It is too easy to become cognitively overloaded by too many relationships to attend to, with a likely detriment on our ability to appreciate the significance of new ideas when they come our way.

Second, the important thing about weak ties is that some of them have a vital role to play in connecting communities together. Weak ties that act as bridges between strongly tied groups provide a channel for flows of innovation and ideas that - by propagating through social neighbourhoods in a relatively efficient way - create social cohesion. Granovetter said that the more bridges exist in a community, the more capable that community is of acting in concert.

This is vital for putting creative ideas into action. Transferring ideas from one social neighbourhood to another is not easy to do, especially when those ideas are complex or where they challenge the prevailing values or mindset of a strong-tie clump. (See Morten Hansen's work, for example, on transferring ideas between R&D teams.)  For this reason, it's important to be aware of who - in the various social neighbourhoods you operate in - plays a role validating your ideas as well as who is useful for sourcing them.

So do your weak ties boost your creativity? Here are some questions to help answer that question:

1. Try playing with a tool to visualise your Facebook or LinkedIn network. On your social graph, which clumps are energised by strong ties, with people investing time together, and which are weak groups? How many strong clumps are you part of?

2. Are you a local bridge between any clumps? Do you have casual acquaintances or distant friends who are immersed in strong clumps?  Do you have the potential to act as a bridge between their social neighbourhood and yours? Could there be some value in doing so?

3. Make a list of 10 people you know or know of (face-to-face or online) whose comments, posts or talk you pay attention to. How many of these people know each other? How frequently do you interact? How distinctive is what they have to say?

4. Think about people you don't see often or who mainly participate in different social worlds to your own? Among these, who might be a useful source of novel ideas?

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Goldilocks Network - being prepared for serendipity

Is your personal network optimised for creativity? Do your social worlds - both on and offline - serve up fresh droplets of insight and sparks of illumination?  Do you know people who bring you unexpected nuggets - pieces of a bigger picture that you would never have thought to go looking for? Have you ever thought about who is in your inspiration network and whether that network is working for you?

Surely, I hear you say, these things happen through serendipity and chance encounters - by inadvertently stumbling on interesting tidbits or by allowing a conversation to take a free course? Surely we can't plan or manage our networks to make us more creative? Anyway, who wants to be the kind of instrumental networker who schmoozes some people and ditches others, just to be more creative?

Well, I take your point, but it may be that your inspiration network is suffering from a Goldilocks problem - it might be too big or too small; too diverse or not diverse enough; too strong or too weak. To figure out whether that is the case, it is helpful to know something about network terminology.

  • Size refers to the number of people in your inspiration network; it's all the people you get ideas and insights from - whether intended or unintended. In Goldilocks' terms, it's the size of the chair you sit in for ideas. 
  • Strength refers to the closeness, frequency and length of time you have known each of these people. It's the extent of warmth and familiarity in the relationships that serve you (a porridge of) ideas 
  • Diversity refers to extent of heterogeneity in your inspiration network - the extent of overlap in the social and intellectual worlds of those who inspire you over. Think of this as the texture of the bed you lie in - it could be uniformly ironed and smooth, or wrinkled and lumpy. A bed with lumps is less comfortable to sleep in, and similarly being exposed to a heterogeneity of ideas can be conflicting and difficult to reconcile 

A study looking at the relationship between idea networks and creativity showed that the size, strength and diversity of employees' idea networks was related to their creativity (as rated by their supervisors).  Markus Baer studied the idea networks of employees in a global agricultural firm. Creativity was greater for employees with low network strength and high diversity, consistent with Granovetter's arguments about the value of weak (low strength) ties for access to novel information. Baer also showed that the employees with the largest and smallest networks tended to be less creative than those with moderately sized networks - the Goldilocks effect.

There is evidence, from this and other studies, that creativity can be enhanced by seeking inspiration from people you don't know too well, and by making sure that these people intersect a range of social and intellectual worlds. Throw too many people into this mix, however, and you may have such a cacophony of competing perspectives to attend to that it may become costly or time-consuming to make serendipitous connections between them.

Because, after all, the assumption underlying Baer's work is that low-strength, high-diversity networks maximise the likelihood of being able to make hitherto unforeseen connections and combinations of ideas. Such networks make serendipitous discoveries more likely.

In a neat echo of the Goldilocks story, Baer has one other important finding. Was it serendipitous that Goldilocks stumbled on the three bears' house when she was hungry and tired? Or did her hunger and tiredness make her more inclined to experiment with the porridge, the chairs and the beds once she got there? Baer found that, not only did the size, diversity and strength of a network matter for employees' creativity, but so did the extent to which the employees were open to experience. This is a way of thinking that is open to integration and combination of new information.

If we are alert to the potential for creativity in our networks, we are more likely to notice and to make use of opportunities for combining novel ideas together to make unanticipated discoveries. Optimising your network for creativity is not a case of schmoozing with some people and ditching others, though it may be valuable to think about whether your inspiration sources are diverse enough and whether you are attentive to too few or too many. It is also about being ready to notice coincidences and alignments as they occur, making associations and, in effect, being prepared for serendipity.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Optimising your social network - a glossary

Here is a list of the terms I use when writing about social networks:

Social network - the humanity around me - both online and offline. I like to think of my social network as comprising three different kinds of social group:
  • Social convoy - the people I go through life with. People who are important to me, and for whom I am important, even if I don't see them often 
  • Personal community - people I interact with in the course of my daily life, be that at work, school, college, in my neighbourhood or as a result of other stuff I do
  • Inspiration network - people who give me stimulus and ideas
Activities that add contacts to our network
  • Scanning - looking out for people who it might be useful to be connected to 
  • Collecting - adding people to my network as a result of making preliminary contact either virtually or face-to-face 
  • Reacting -  responding to collecting or connecting approaches - deciding how to respond to the requests or suggestion from someone else
  • Reaching - asking people I know to connect me to others
Activities that change the connections between people in our network
  • Connecting - introducing two people in my network who don’t know each other (maybe in response to reaching by someone else, or as a result of mapping)
  • Catalysing - bringing about a change in the relationship between other people in my network (for example by encouraging them to start a conversation with each other)
  • Mapping - studying the structure or shape of our network to decide where and how new connections could be made or new conversations started
Activities that contribute to the thinking of people in our network
  • Firing - starting a private conversation to get people sharing ideas
  • Fusing - adding people to a conversation 
  • Broadcasting - inviting people in a network to contribute ideas on something
  • Tuning - attending to the conversations that people in the network are broadcasting
  • Digging - passing on ideas from one connection to another
  • Moulding - refining, reframing or interpreting an idea for someone else
  • Burying - closing down or choosing not to pass on ideas from one connection to another
  • Resourcing - giving time to someone to help them develop ideas
  • Recruiting - asking people to give time to help with the development of ideas 

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Circles: A way to think about your social network

What does the term 'social network' make you think of? Increasingly, people use the term to refer to online social networking sites, like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. It is as if a social network, in their minds, is something people interact with online.

In my mind, a social network is the humanity around me - both online and offline. I like to think of my social network as comprising three different kinds of social group. I depict these groups as circles, inspired by Google+ - a tool which makes it possible to assign contacts and friends to self-defined circles and have Facebook-like interactions with them.

Your social convoy is the people you go through life with. People who are there for you or with you. People who are important to you, and for whom you are important, even if you don't see them often. These are close and reciprocated ties to people you know alot about, like family, friends and relatives, former friends from education or work.

Your personal community comprises people you interact with in the course of your daily life, be that at work, school, college, in your neighbourhood or as a result of other stuff you do. We typically co-exist in many different personal communities, some of which overlap. Relationships in a personal community are more short-lived than in a social convoy - people you know and interact while you have something in common. You may see them frequently but not know them very well. Over time, some may become a part of your social convoy but many pass on as your lives diverge.

Your inspiration network is the set of people who give you stimulus and ideas. They may be authors, bloggers, artists, journalists, commentators or creators of one sort or another. You may not know them at all. They may never have heard of you. An inspiration network may consist of very ephemeral relationships with a short half-life; people you find inspiring for a short time only. Or it may include a following of people you don't know but who tune in and respond to your tweets or posts. Over time, some members of your inspiration network may become part of a personal community, while you lose interest in others as the novelty of their ideas declines.

Of course, there are overlaps between these circles. But it's useful to think about how ideas move from one circle to the next. To make use of ideas that originate in the inspiration network, we need to migrate those ideas into a relevant personal community and get them accepted there. For example, I've been inspired by Mike Wesch's ideas on using digital media in education, but his ideas will only change how I teach if I can persuade my students and my colleagues to accept and embrace a very different way of teaching and learning.

Ideas from the inspiration network are developed, implemented and put into action in a personal community of some kind - a work-based community or group of friends whose opinions shape what we can do. Smart networking involves knowing who in a personal community is important for validating a new idea and influencing other people to embrace it. Also clever is the ability to spot who is in reach within your inspiration network and to develop techniques for drawing them into a personal community - by following them, digging them, commenting on their feeds or finding a way to meet them face-to-face.

Where does online social networking fit in to my concept of a social network?  For me, utilities like Facebook and LinkedIn are ways to connect with people in various of my personal communities - college friends, former colleagues or friends from some time ago. I am also connected on Facebook and LinkedIn to people in my social convoy too but that is not the main way I interact with them. Twitter and the blogosphere are how I maintain and refresh my inspiration network, as they give me a great way to tune into the ideas of people I don't know. Often it's through the suggestions of people in the other social circles that I find new people to add to my inspiration network. In effect, our personal communities and our social convoy shapes the ideas that we tune into.

The terms social convoy and personal community are inspired by Rah Pahl's book 'On Friendship'. The term inspiration network is my own.

Friday, 17 June 2011

An exercise in collaborative creativity

Liza Donnelly inspired me to invite suggestions for a caption for one of my cartoons. So here it is (a cartoon that is inspired by Liza's book When Do They Serve the Wine). Please tweet to @zellak with suggested captions.