These days, “social networks” and “social capital” are buzzwords in organizations. Managers are increasingly aware of social ties and their role in organizational performance, so they naturally try to develop them top-down. They organize corporate mixers and engage in new joint activities employees who were previously unknown to each other.
Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. People aren’t like molecules in a chemical reaction that will bond together if we introduce the right catalyst. When people work in new foci of joint activities, the activity and the interaction influence each other in complicated, subtle and very human ways. Social relationships are grown like plants, not built like machines. The way people get things done is emergent, never fully prescribed – particularly in modern knowledge-based organizations. Employees exercise at least some choice of their key collaborators by joining projects that correspond to their interests, proposing their own initiatives, and communicating with some teammates more than others. And even in formal organizations, social ties may precede joint activities, as well as being created by them – colleagues engage together in new projects in order to enrich their existing relationships. While entrepreneurs may create a new firm, or managers may create a new business unit, it will only come to life if employees fully engage together within these structures. And people tend to gravitate towards those who are similar to them on some dimension: gender, age, geographic location, knowledge and skills, etc.
Social ties in the real world
With Ryan Burg from the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, our paper “Learning Foci and the Reproduction of Social Relations” investigates what really happens when people are assigned to new joint activities by management top-down. Are they more likely to form new social ties? And what happens to the ties they already have? Unlike previous studies, this one distinguishes tightly-constrained foci, whose members have no control over their collaborators, from loosely-constrained ones, whose members do have some choice.
The study took place in a large Russian bank whose 451 middle-level managers from regional branches across different countries engaged in a year-long executive education program. As well as imparting new knowledge, the bank’s leaders also wanted to build a professional network among managers throughout its organization. Since learning is a major activity in a modern corporation, the research setting looked particularly well-suited for the task at hand.
Focus constraint and the reproduction of social ties
The participants of the program were randomly divided into eight classes, then randomly assigned to smaller, goal-oriented project teams within each class.
Within their classes, students could partner with whomever they wanted – based on pre-existing ties or anything else. In other words, classes represented loosely-constrained foci.
However, project teams were very different. Each team was given a shared grade for its work, and members peer-reviewed each other’s work. This obliged all team members to work with each other and not tolerate ‘free riders’. This was a tightly-constrained focus, within which interactions were imposed top-down.
Method and results
We traced the dynamics of participants’ social network during the program, looking at who sought work advice from whom, and who was friends with whom before, during, and after the program. To capture similarity as a factor in tie formation, we analyzed students’ gender and human capital endowments as well as whether they worked in the same branch of the bank prior to enrolling in the program.
The study’s first findings confirm what other researchers have found: people are more likely to form social ties just by being involved in joint activities; the same gender, similar endowments of human capital, and colocation induce advice and friendship ties; and all other things being equal, participants prefer to collaborate with their old friends rather than newly encountered classmates.
Yet, the tightly-constrained project teams showed surprising outcomes. On the one hand, they were more likely to generate new relationships than loosely-constrained classes, presumably, due to the sheer intensity of interactions. On the other hand, pre-existing social ties were less likely to persist in project teams despite the very same intensity. Team members switched their attention to new contacts and, as additional analyses showed, did not return to old ones even a year after the completion of the program. We conclude that the random assignment to joint activities puts pre-existing relationships under pressure rather than enriches them.
Lessons for research and management
This research offers an important lesson to researchers, who celebrate teamwork but forget the role of teammates themselves in team formation and maintenance. If we want to understand how people really work together, we have to accept that things like working relationships and social status are generated and reproduced within social interactions, organizational structures do not create them on their own.
They also offer a lesson for managers who want to boost social capital in their organizations: the success of new formal structures depends on how much space they leave for humans to nurture their own relationships. If employees themselves can identify the similarities among them that are conducive to productive collaboration and fit their pre-existing social ties to the task at hand, the results are more likely to be positive.
Unfortunately, the opposite trend becomes more common these days. Equipped with new information and communication technologies, managers try to increase the social capital of their organizations top-down by design. One popular approach is to bring together employees from different functional teams and geographic regions, and assign them with new activities without any regard for pre-existing relationships. The study suggests that this could be a very bad idea.