Social capital remains an ambiguous term. The last decades it is used often, and often for different meanings. Recently, Chris Jones also mentioned it and raises great questions. Sometimes I also refer to social capital, but I learned to use the term with care, or at least explain what you mean by it when you mention it. You could avoid the term completely because of the ambiguity, but I prefer to keep using it.
Because it is being used for multiple meanings, but always related, I like to use it by combining at least two versions of the term. For example, The fact that it can refer to the social capital of a person (whatever exact definition you would give it) and for a group, makes it a multilevel concept. Somehow, the social capital of all persons in a group combined and the social capital of the group seem to be similar, but it’s really not. Making the step from one level to another must be done with great care.
This can be the basis for new challenges in research. Oh, Labianca and Chung (2004, 2006) did a great job with this challenge. In a way, because a group is made up of people, the individual social capital of these people is related to the social capital of the group. Under what conditions can the group perform? What is needed in terms of closure in the group, and bridging with other groups? What is the role of the individual people that are member of a group? What about people that belong to multiple groups?
In my current research, I focus on behavior of people in online groups. I look at people who form bridges between groups, distinguishing between the number of people that form the same bridge. We found some solid results there, which creates questions about what this means for the group or groups. So perhaps I need to make the step from the individual to the group, and probably social capital will be included in such research.
Below you will find my presentation for the Sunbelt 2013 conference in Hamburg last month. These are my first baby steps in the world of social network analysis research, and to me, (group) social capital is still a holy grail somehow…
I’ve been reading literature about social network analysis (SNA) lately for my research. A lot is written about SNA. About analyzing, about measures, about SNA in organizations, and many more. However, many research does not address the value of the potential (or past) changes in the network, it especially addresses the value (social capital) of a snapshot of the network, the value of the existing social ties. Think about measures like density, distance, centrality, bridges, structural holes and weak ties, or, more qualitatively, trust, norms, power and autonomy.
In my view, it is not complete to study social networks as static. They were formed sometime before the analysis, there are reasons it became that way. It’s a bit like the universe, it changes continuously with changing nodes, relations and meaning of the relationships between nodes. Analysis of a network is always a snapshot in time. How the network will or can evolve is at least as interesting and important, because that will determine a snapshot at a later moment. The (social) reality that we live in now, is determined by the earlier realities, and the current reality will influence the possible future realities. Therefore we cannot deny the dynamic nature of a social network.
Now, can we determine the possible future directions of a network, for example in organizations? Can we identify what determined the current state of a social network? With the advance of online communities, and the vast amount of recorded data of relations and communication between people, perhaps we can. What network characteristics in the past influences the current network as it is? We can look at new entrants (nodes) which brings new opportunities, new knowledge, new relations over time. We can also look at nodes that disappeared (left the company) or changed position (got promoted). We can look at changing goals of individuals, departments or the company, and we can look at changing outside conditions (legislation, competitors, drastic events). There are many more things we can look at.
Not everything that we can identify in a social network snapshot is because of chance or fate. We probably can point to events in history that influenced the current state of the network. People made changes in their network themselves, or outside events triggered changes. Events can also be gradual, like the growing of a particular group within a network, that caused some change elsewhere in the network, which is an important asset in the current state.
So I’m thinking about looking for social capital measures in dynamic social networks, in the context of organizations, by comparing multiple snapshots in the past. It can hopefully be used to explain how networks work, and how they can evolve by making possible scenario’s, and what is needed to go for a preferred scenario. Do you think this would be interesting?
Recently I’ve been reading about topics like social capital and knowledge from a network point of view. Networks (in organizations) are quite an interesting point of view, because it represents the ‘real’ flow of information, knowledge, advice, ideas, gossip, etc. Some networks form naturally, being intrinsic of nature, and some are being formed extrinsically. A little bit of both would be the best for an organization, because not all networks would be beneficial in such an environment. With the progress of online possibilities, both can be accomplished. How to ‘design’ online networks is not a one-size-fits-all concept, and how they develop is unique in every situation, but both can be guided to some extent. Both design and emergent processes determine the structure of the network.
An interesting article I’ve read recently was “Why Should I Share? Examining Social Capital and Knowledge Contribution in Electronic Networks of Practice” (Wasko and Faraj, 2005). What are motivations for people to exchange advice and ideas to others that they don’t know? It’s interesting, because it’s what we see all the time. I’ve learnt a great deal from people who left a comment on this blog, most of them (you) just leave a comment based on common interest, not afraid to share their expertise, no expectations for reciprocity or feeling obliged, but just eager to have a conversation on a subject that is a shared interest. So my thesis from experience is that sharing is a good thing, not only here but in organizations as well.
What happens on blogs like these is completely voluntary. Time is available in abundance. In organizations, the situation is a bit different. One of the reasons is time, which is a scarce resource at work, and must be justified to a great extent. It can take a long time for valuable networks to develop, therefore it makes sense to speed up this process a bit, and make it justifiable to spend the scarcely available time on. Typically, organizations are organized in a way that people who need to (or have been told to) work together, are located close by. Organizations are familiar with the concept of designing the organization, like an organization chart and locations of employees. For a great deal, this behavior is copied to an online environment. While this can have disadvantages (eg. showing off), it is an opportunity to speed up the process. It makes sense to walk on two tracks here, the designed, and the evolving. Or does it…… Am I getting a little bit of track here?
My point is that social capital in organizations should be fostered, so it can develop more quickly and become more sustainable. Social capital points to the collective capital of a constellation of people, also known as a (social) network. While people can leave the network, the social capital still remains. The better the network is formed (determining on the purpose), the better the organization is equipped for changes in the network. The advance of enterprise social networks is an enabler for this capital, but it won’t happen automatically. (I dislike the term ‘enterprise social network’ when it’s used for a product, because it has a false promise in it.) A network only becomes social when it has acquired social capital over time. It becomes sustainable. Its structure is solid. Its fabric becomes social.