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Anybody for a game of 'bridge' ?

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SURESH BHAGAVATULA is assistant professor at IIM Bangalore. His research focuses on how social networks help entrepreneurs and organisations

Whether we like it or not, we exist in networks - members of the family, current friends, old friends, colleagues, excolleagues and acquaintances. And aggregating networks of each of us across the world will lead to the network of the entire mankind. This may sound like a very large network but social psychologist Stanley Milgram in his experiment in the '60s showed that it is possible for us to reach out to distant people through friends of friends. Random people in Omaha in Nebraska were asked to send a parcel through their friends who would then send it to their friends in order to deliver it to a person in Boston. This experiment led to the popular construct of 'six degrees of separation'. In the book Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell narrates a story of two men who were sent from Boston westwards to inform the American militia about a possible British attack just before the war of the American Revolution in 1775. One of them, Paul Revere, is known to almost every American child but the other William Dawes is relegated to history books. This was because Revere's run was so successful that the American militia units in villages west of Boston were completely prepared for the British attack. Gladwell reasons that Revere's success could be attributed to the networks that he nurtured which were more effective than those of Dawes.

Today, networks are more important than ever before. Thanks to information and communication technologies, access to public information is most often a click or a call away. However, what differentiates each of us is our access to private information and it is this that our immediate network surrounding us brings in. Opportunities are springing up everywhere - potential business deals, marketing possibilities, job openings, availability of new grants, work assignments, etc. Searching for the best possible people for these opportunities involves time and effort and hence people rely on their networks to identify potential candidates.

For those disseminating the information, effective networks are those that help them send this information to a wide range of audience in order to identify the right candidate and right products. Effective networks for the receivers are ones that bring this information to them before it reaches others. This effectiveness can be captured through a term called social capital. It is a metaphor that captures the resources (both tangible and intangible) that are contained in our network. Therefore, effective networks are those that contain large amounts of social capital.

In the workspace, research has shown that entrepreneurs and employees with higher amounts of social capital in their networks are likely to be performing better than their peers. So the question will then be, how can we improve our social capital? Before that we need to understand that social capital is relational in nature, so accessible to all parties in the network, and will decay if the relationships are not maintained.

Broadly there are two types of social capital - bonding capital and bridging capital. Suppose I have a core network of six friends then it is a pure bonding kind of network if all of them know one another. If none of them know one another then it is pure bridging kind of network. If we nurture a bonding network where we have friends and acquaintances who know one another, then we are likely to know the likes and dislikes of the network members and we are also likely to know more or less of what they know. Hence such networks are likely to bring in redundant information. However, such networks are likely to have high levels of trust in them. Business exchanges happen in bonding networks without any written contracts but orally. In workplaces, bonding networks help teams assimilate complex information quickly and help get work done.

In a bridging network, most members do not know one another but connect to a different set of individuals. Such networks are likely to have access to a large amount of new information that has great possibilities of new opportunities. Also by connecting the disconnected parts of the networks, those in such bridging positions too can benefit. These bridging networks can also be helpful in effective referrals - dropping one's name and abilities in places where one is not present.

While one cannot have pure bonding or pure bridging ties, how should one then start improving one's networks? As we grow older, our ability to make new friends decreases and we find ourselves embedded within a core set of individuals. Also, we tend to make friends and hang out with people who are similar to us. Therefore, our networks tend to move towards the bonding type if we do not take action. So, we need to constantly make new acquaintances to keep our network fresh.

Here, a word of caution. Do not randomly distribute your visiting cards and shake hands with everyone, that is not effective networking. It is more important to be genuine. One way to improve your network is to take up group sporting activity like cycling, trekking etc or voluntary work. Attending conferences and meetings can help us meet interesting people. On the other hand, it is also important to keep up old relationships and here the new social networking sites help us greatly.

One other strategy that is useful is to keep aside some hours and make calls to people in one's mobile phone with whom one has not been in touch. This activity, research has shown, is most effective. Another effective way of maintaining relations is to weave connections. This is nothing but connecting disconnected people in one's network to each other because they have something in common. One way is to organise parties where half the people do not know one another and create connections. Finally, so many people in our networks require help. By reaching out, one is seeding obligations in one's network;this definitely improves one's social capital. Success in both private and professional life is a function of one's network, so network and network positively.

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