Everyone should learn about social networks

For six years, I have taught network theory to MBA students at Stanford Business School. While there is no doubt in my mind that MBA students (and especially those leading business schools) have excellent networks, the conventional wisdom that students come in with is that having good networks is mainly about two things: (1) being good at “networking” or (2) knowing a lot of important people.

The truth of how networks actually allocate scarce resources and bestow success on individuals and teams, however, is more nuanced, and sometimes pretty counter-intuitive. My argument to students is quite simple, a manager who understands social networks and can “see” them more clearly, can create more value than his or her equally qualified colleagues. Seeing networks is more about seeing the forest, and not just the trees.

My first goal is to get students to see themselves and others, not as bundles of degrees, achievements, job descriptions or even personalities, but rather as people who occupy positions in a network. Network positions are generally invisible to the casual observer, but to anyone who has felt torn between two groups of colleagues, or has failed to break into a career or organization, the impact of networks can be acutely felt.

Seeing and understanding networks is about having the right perspective. The right perspective is about knowing what you want to accomplish and whether you have the support and resources to get there. The class is built around four perspectives that managers usually have to take to be effective. In designing the class, I have drawn heavily on the insights of leading scholars in the field such as Ronald Burt, David Krackhardt, Joel Podolny and many many more.

The four perspectives I will focus on are:

The ME perspective. It is inward looking and is about taking stock of your own social networks, your goals, and whether you are set up to succeed in your career and beyond. This perspective allows you to identify how your network creates value for you, what the nature of that value is, and where it comes from.

The YOU perspective. It is outward looking and is about how you can use your network to create unique value for others. Creating value for others is the bedrock of any successful career or organization.

The US perspective. It is holistic, it asks the manager to understand how work “really” gets done on a team, identify where the bottlenecks are and where value lies, and develop solutions to your team become more effective.

Finally, network ideas have transformed the TECHNOLOGY industry, either by making once individual technologies social or by finding value in the relationships between content, products, and ideas. This task of uncovering hidden value in data is perhaps the central enterprise of the modern technology industry. I try to give students a networks framework for seeing value the in data that organizations already collect.

During the month of May, I will post the key take aways from the  8 modules that make up the class. The modules should give people the basic tools for taking a network perspective on their careers, their teams and their ventures.

If you’re interested, here are the Syllabi for both the MBA Networks Class and the PhD Networks Class.

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