While walking through the stone paved streets at night, in Lipscany in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, Ciprian, my local guide and a new friend filled me with local stories and information. Those entire streets are full of bars and restaurants where the young local crowd and tourists move around from early evening till early morning. I happened to meet Ciprian a month ago on an early morning in London when sleeplessness and jetlag was almost ready to compromise. He called me and told how to manage my Romanian Visa.
I was worried about getting a Romanian Visa at that time as I could not submit my passport in time to the Romanian Embassy in Delhi due to my impending trip to London. I wrote about my challenge of getting the Romania Visa on Facebook and my wife’s friend who saw my post connected me and Ciprian. Ciprian who lives in Bucharest had worked earlier in the Romanian Embassy in Delhi and is quite fond of India. Interestingly, my wife did not know that her friend, who is an air force officer had worked in Bucharest. Anyway, I got the visa and wanted to spend an evening with Ciprian and that’s how we both ended up at Lipscany.
When I finished the second shot of Palinca, a very strong Romania drink with Ciprian, I realized the power of the concept “the friend of a friend” or what we call in social network theory, “The strength of weak ties”. Mark S. Granovetter, an American Sociologist and professor at Stanford University wrote a paper called “The strength of weak ties” in 1973 and that paper is still considered as one of the most influential papers in sociology. This is also one of the most important concepts in Social Network Theory, the study of how people, organizations or groups interact with others inside their network. I was able to connect to Ciprian through a weak tie who saw my post on Facebook.
The relations that we have with close friends are known as strong ties, and the relations with far contacts are known as weak ties. In case of strong ties, we spend more time together and there is closeness and emotional intensity. Weak ties are then friends’ friends or acquaintances. Granovetter stated that weak ties act as bridges while strong ties are inside groups. He also mentioned that the weak ties have a main role in diffusion of new information in the network.
Weak ties make connections among different groups in a network and they gain information from one group and spread it to others. Granovetter mentioned that most people got new job opportunities through weak ties rather than strong ties. Remember, your strong ties, your close friends most of the time know each other and might not give you any new information but weak ties could connect you with new information and new opportunities.
When my book, “Coaching, the art of Developing Leaders” was about to get published by Wiley, I wanted to reach out to Leena Nair, Chief HR officer of Unilever, based in London. I had neither worked with her in the past, nor ever meet her before. Also, none of my close friends knew her well. I wanted her to read the book and if she liked it, to write a testimonial which could go on the back cover. We both hail from the same district in Kerala and I thought that this could be a good enough coincidence, for her to give it a shot.
A friend of mine suggested that I should get in touch with her acquaintance Priya, who was then the HR head of ING Vysya Life Insurance. Priya had worked with Leena earlier in Unilever and she graciously agreed to connect me with Leena. Leena agreed to read the book and subsequently, endorse it if she liked it. This then is a classic example of the strength of a weak tie. Fortunately, Leena did like the book and wrote a testimonial .
Priya in this case became a bridge, a term in social network theory. According to Ronald Stuart Burt, Professor at The University of Chicago, the bridges in organizations could fill structural holes and be in a position of advantage as a bridge or a broker. Most of our close social relationships will be dense clusters of strong connections. This is true for organisations also. Members of a team usually know each other well and have close connections. But it is your weak ties or friend’s friends who could provide you with new information and ideas that could trigger innovation and collaboration in organizations.
We all, thus need to leverage our weak ties for new information and new opportunities and I am going to check with Ciprian how is he doing in Bucharest now.