UPDATED: December 9, 2021
As leaders and professionals, we tend to gravitate to our strong ties—the people in our familiar circles of conversation. And that’s understandable. But what about our connections to the weak ties, namely those whose conversational networks are different from ours? Are there advantages to cultivating those ties?
These are questions about our networks, and how we stay in the flow of new ideas and valuable perspectives. Lurking in the background is the question of how we go about preparing our students to engage in a version of weak ties, by extending themselves into diverse and unfamiliar areas of knowledge and practice (a matter to which I will return in a moment).
The research is clear enough. Decades of empirical studies have demonstrated that professionals need to think elastically about the people in their idea networks. For example, repeated studies have looked at project teams that stay together for long periods without significant changes in their composition (changes that would bring in people with different backgrounds and experiences). Such teams are less likely to come up with ideas that lead to innovations, according to the findings.
Why is that? Because members of long-running teams get into the habit of culling their ideas from a narrow band of sources: one another. They’re probably not communicating very often with people working on altogether different projects in other departments and organizations, or at least not relying on others for ideas. So, their own ideas keep recirculating within the group—making it harder to come up with fresh solutions to problems.
People on your usual team or in your department would fall into the category of strong ties, meaning that you and they belong to overlapping networks of information and ideas. Someone in a specialty that has little connection to yours would count as a weak tie, because this person normally travels in a different set of circles, organizationally and professionally. In no small part, the challenge of innovation is to understand and appreciate the value of these weak ties, a concept articulated by the American sociologist Mark Granovetter.
In 1973, Granovetter published an eye-opening paper titled “The Strength of Weak Ties,” which laid out a seminal social-networking theory that has remained highly influential through the decades. I stumbled upon the paper in the early 1980s, and the core ideas have influenced my thinking ever since.
For Granovetter, the most valuable information comes from outside a person’s usual network of contacts, through the weaker ties. He based his findings on interviews with hundreds of job seekers, who were far more likely to land a job through a “weak” acquaintance than through a friend, relative, or co-worker with whom they shared connections. In contrast, the strong-tie contacts ordinarily spoke to roughly the same people that the job seekers spoke to, so they had more or less the same leads to offer.
In professional life, some of the best ideas will come from weak-tie individuals. They are customers, acquaintances, and many others—including perfect strangers. They may well have an entirely different perspective on a subject, one that expands our supply of knowledge and ideas.
Developing Weak Ties Through the Curriculum and in the Classroom
I’ve often thought about Granovetter’s insight, along with similar social networking theories, when seeking to improve the academic experience at our school. By way of example, allow me to highlight a couple of interrelated questions we began grappling with some years ago.
The first question related to an initiative by Boston College to better integrate different schools of the University: How can we introduce arts and sciences students to management studies, as a way of broadening their own horizons and opportunities? The second question: How do we create a more engaging and academically diverse mix of students for those at our school, majoring in management disciplines?
The response to both questions led us into the biggest expansion in the history of the Carroll School. In the spring of 2018, we rolled out four new minors for non–Carroll School students: Finance, Marketing, Accounting for CPAs, and Accounting for Finance and Consulting. The new minors added to the two already offered to these undergraduate students: Management and Leadership, and Managing for Social Impact and the Public Good.
Since then, thousands of these new students have streamed into our classrooms—1300 are now enrolled in our minors for non-management students. They’re majoring in history, literature, chemistry, and the fine arts, while learning side by side with our management students, drilling down into accounting, finance, and other disciplines. Our faculty testify that the new mix has altered classroom dynamics, enlivening discussions and interactions. Every day, liberal arts majors are adding their skills and perspectives to group projects and important issues in management.
I should add that likewise, Carroll School students have been bringing their frames of reference to classes in the arts and sciences. Over the past decade, we have provided incentives for students to do just that—by letting them skip some core courses at our school, as long as they major or minor in a subject at Boston College’s Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences. Now, approximately 40 percent of our students are majoring or minoring in the humanities or natural sciences. It’s one way of creating curious, effective, lifelong learners.
In other words, our management students are stepping beyond their usual academic circles—normally populated by peers who tend to know what they know. They’re forging links with students who have thought much more about Aristotle than analytics, more about literary criticism than corporate finance. In such an encounter, unfamiliar sources come into play; ideas creatively collide; new pathways emerge. With any luck, our classrooms turn into a snapshot of what Granovetter meant when he spoke of the value and strength of weak ties.
There’s no doubt in my mind that these academic experiences will serve our students well, as they learn how to foster (and integrate) the connections and conversations that bring exceptional ideas to the surface.
Andy Boynton is the John and Linda Powers Family Dean at the Boston College Carroll School of Management. This article originally appeared in the November edition of Carroll Capital, the Carroll School's newsletter for business school deans and academics internationally.