Measuring Individual Social Capital
We’ve already explored several proxy indicators for measuring the relative social capital of a given community. Can we extend these indicators for communities to individuals? The most intuitive is the cognitive social capital indicator of trust; if you have more relationships with higher levels of trust than I do, you likely have more human capital resources at your disposal. Others, like the structural social capital indicator of membership density, are a little more of a stretch; if you have connections in more organizations than I do, you likely have more human capital resources at your disposal.
Luckily there’s an incredible body of research out there that helps us analyze individual network structures in a more scientific way. In this post, we’re taking inspiration from Leigh Thompson’s management book, Making the Team, as we begin exploring this research with a focus on teams and organizations. We’ll introduce the concept of structural holes, discuss how individuals can maximize their social capital by bridging structural holes with their networks, and reveal why individuals who do this have a competitive advantage in organizations.
How Structural Holes Can Sink the Ship
Information sharing across teams is a common challenge in organizations. For example, we have all seen situations where two teams build two different processes to solve the same problem, only to find out after the fact that their efforts were duplicated. Structural holes, or gaps between social contacts in an organization, are one factor that contributes to these information sharing mishaps and inefficiencies.
It only takes one person to bridge a structural hole. Let’s take an international organization with offices in London and Paris. If someone on the London finance team has a connection on the Paris finance team, it’s likely that those team members would be aware of projects and ideas happening in the other office and communicate that knowledge to each other and their teams as projects progress.
Thompson sums up the organizational impact of bridging structural holes in her book:
“Bridging structural holes is critical for maximizing diversity of ideas and setting the stage for creative thinking, not to mention avoiding duplication of effort and speeding along organizational innovations to relevant units.”
The Boundary Spanner Role
In Making the Team, Thompson dubs team members who bridge structural holes with other teams “boundary spanners.” She defines this role as follows:
“The boundary spanner acts as a bridge between units or people in an organization who would not otherwise interact. Boundary spanners are exposed to more ideas than members who do not interact with other groups. Indeed, boundary spanners who spend time with different groups exhibit greater integrative complexity in their thinking (a form of creativity) than people who don’t engage in boundary spanning.”
Within many teams, there’s an implicit knowledge of who the boundary spanners are. They’re the ones who seem to know everyone, the ones who have unique insights on what’s going on in other teams, or the ones who seem to get stuff done without necessarily having the title to match it. The diversity of their connections within the company makes them brokers for information beyond the redundant knowledge that often echoes within a team’s walls. It makes sense that boundary spanners are important for an organization’s success, and Thompson backs this up with a study of 64 teams, which revealed that boundary-spanning activities (among other external roles) were positively related to team performance. The idea of giving a formal name to boundary spanners is appealing because their information is only valuable if they are empowered to share it with their team.
What’s in It for the Boundary Spanner?
Boundary spanners have what’s called an entrepreneur network, or a network with contacts in disparate groups. Entrepreneur networks stand in contrast to clique networks, which are self-contained networks of like-minded people, or echo chambers. Entrepreneur networks typically span several of what would otherwise have been structural holes in an organization. Boundary spanners with entrepreneur networks typically experience more success because they naturally have access to more information and know about more opportunities. In Making the Team, Thompson cites a study of more than 3,000 senior managers in a technology company with more than 100,000 employees. The study analyzed the managers’ networks to infer relative amounts of social capital and found that the managers promoted earlier had more social capital.
This research brings us full circle to the discussion of measuring individual social capital. The structure of your network has important implications for your social capital, and structural holes are one aspect of network structure that matters. Are you a boundary spanner? Does your team have at least one person acting in this role? If you’re not sure, looking for structural holes is a great starting point.