Many decades ago, my small-world assumptions were incredibly optimistic: I was smart, resourceful and helpful, and the world needed me, therefore capitalists would seek me out and pay me well. I discovered they weren’t looking very hard for me: I had to find them. I longed for experts in my own social group—i.e., gay software entrepreneurs—who could advise me, and found few. I even wrote to venture capitalist colleagues asking if they knew any gay VCs: nope. I remember thinking I couldn’t talk football and I didn’t play golf, therefore I would find few commonalities with straight men. Though I now realize how prejudicial this assumption was, it turns out the main victim was likely me.
New research on the “small-world theory,” that we can find what we need in few steps via our social networks, shows that preferring advice from members of the same social group may damn us to more difficult access to expertise and referrals.
In “The World is Not Small for Everyone” [sing10], Singh, Hansen and Podolny thoughtfully explore how limited access to knowledge hobbles peripheral, junior and female employees. Surprisingly, in all three of these cases, self-reinforced isolation seems to interfere further with access to experts and referrals.
Knowledge is the primary resource in management consulting. It’s all about who you know. When a client raises a question management consultants can’t answer, they look for an in-house expert. If they don’t know an in-house expert directly, they ask a colleague for a referral. The sequence of referrals ultimately forms a search chain. All else being equal, the shorter the chain, the more rapidly a management consultant can offer an answer, the more likely the client will appreciate the consulting engagement, the more engagements the consultant might obtain, and ultimately the higher the billing rate the consultant might command.
Singh et al surveyed 3,150 consultants in a global management consulting firm to test these hypotheses:
- That searchers who have low expert-related centrality, have short tenure, or are in the gender minority are less likely to pinpoint an expert in the first step of a search chain,
- That searchers are more likely to select intermediaries with whom they share a characteristic (expert related centrality, tenure, gender) than intermediaries with whom they do not.
- That searchers (original and intermediaries) who have low expert-related centrality, short tenure, or are in a gender minority tend to have longer realized search paths.
- That for searchers who belong to the organizational periphery, those who name members belonging to the core as the next search step tend to have shorter realized search paths than those who do not.
All of these hypotheses appear to be true.
Women, peripheral employees and new employees all suffered longer searches in finding expert knowledge. Of the three, women were the hardest hit. People in these disadvantaged groups who crossed social boundaries to contact people outside their group reduced their disadvantage significantly.
This paper seems to confirm an advantage of cultural assimilation: by crossing social group boundaries more frequently, members of disadvantaged groups can establish stronger connections with experts and well-connected networks, thus improving their economic standing.
Agile management methods may mitigate some of the disadvantages discussed in “The World is Not Small for Everyone.” Agile methods encourage the creation of cross-functional teams [vodd10], making it easier to obtain knowledge and referrals from people in different social. Agile methods encourage integrating senior and junior people in teams: With pair-programming, senior employees build stronger bonds with junior employees, bringing junior employees closer to the expert network [melo03].
At the same time, this paper challenges us to think more deeply about organizational structures, and how they reinforce or diminish social boundaries. I have recently seen situations where disadvantaged employees sought referrals from people in the same cohort, despite their awareness of others with better connections or greater expertise. How can we encourage social boundary crossing, to improve organizational knowledge and profitability?
Finally, it challenges us, as individuals, to introduce ourselves to alien social groups, and to overcome our natural tendencies to seek expertise only from those in our own social groups. The rewards may go beyond the economic: we may find friends in unusual places.
A few years ago, I attended a 25 year high school reunion and participated in the golf outing, despite knowing nothing about golf. The former captain of the football team taught me how to play. I had a blast.
- Thomas Meloche, James Goebel and Richard Sheridan, “Paired Programming in the Software Factory: Questions and Answers,” white paper, The Menlo Institute LLC, 2003.
- Jasjit Singh, Morten T. Hansen, and Joel M. Podolny, “The World Is Not Small for Everyone: Searching for Knowledge in Organizations,” Management Science 56:9, September 2010,pp. 1415–1438. DOI: 10.1287/mnsc.1100.1201
- Bas Vodde, “Feature Team Primer”