The social networks of virtual teams

Bioteams pay as much attention to their weak ties: the collective external networks of relationships and their connections to the wider organisation and environment as their strong ties: their internal team structures.

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Living Networks

Research into all types of 'living networks' from brain neurons to social networks to nodes of IP addresses shows that a significant portion of them are 'scale free' [1].

This means that the links between them are not evenly distributed but are significantly bunched or clustered.

The key component of such networks are the 'hub nodes' which have massively more connections than all the other nodes.

Because of their high connectivity they are also known to as 'Power Law' nodes or 'connectors' [2].

These hub nodes serve to connect the network to itself.

They also allow scale free networks to exhibit massive fault tolerance.

You can lose a huge amount of non-hub nodes before the networks overall capability begins to degrade.

This can have huge implications for relationships and connections within bioteams.


Network relationships in bioteams

Typically work in organisational teams gets originated in small groups with close internal relationships ('strong ties').It then gets reviewed and refined by wider groups with looser relationships ('weak ties') [3].

Weak Ties exist between individual members of the different smaller groups which connects them to each other.

Equally important is that such weak tie relationships should connect the team to its outside partners.

Strong Ties and weak ties can also be described in 'social capital' terms as 'bonding' social capital and 'bridging' social capital respectively [4].


The importance of strong ties in teams

It can often be a mistake is to try and create work in groups which are too large in the hope that this will ensure everybody is heard and bought-in.

Large groups can originate work but only if it is very carefully managed to ensure that the collaboration is not dominated by only a few.

Some electronic meeting tools such as Zing can be very effective here if used properly.

However this is the exception rather than the rule and the trick is to create the core collaborative product using the smallest effective group but to leave enough headroom and flexibility in it for the wider group to fully contribute and collaborate in its review and extension.


The importance of weak ties in teams

Looser relationships exist between the different smaller groups within a team which connects them to each other and connects the team to its outside partners.

Typically these connections are between the hub members of each small group.

A team without such a structure of weak ties is vulnerable to duplication of effort and poor co-ordination.

Such a team may be the 'last to know' of important changes in its environment.

An example of this is the great 'heads-down' technical team who produce an excellent report which is not actually used because is no longer needed (but nobody told them).

Or it was delivered to such a high specification that it arrived just too late to be useful.


Assess your teams connections

A bioteam needs the right balance of strong ties and weak ties to succeed in the balance of 'doing the thing right' and 'doing the right thing'.

At the start of a project a bioteam should try and map out its relationships and connections to see if any critical gaps exist in both its strong and weak ties.

This can be done informally through a team workshop where a teams weak and strong ties can be sensitively drawn out.

You need to remember you are finding out who the team members communicate regularly with, both formally and informally, not who they like!

Also you are not mapping out the organisation chart!

This exercise can also be done more formally by using relationship mapping software which can analyse email and phone traffic - often producing surprising results.

Quite a common outcome is that a critical relationship between the team and an important external partner is held by only one person in the team and they are not who you thought it would be!

It is not unusual for the customer relationship to be held by the least customer-aware team member, for example, the teams finance person.

Even worse they may hold the relationship not just to the customer but to the customers entire department.


In this situation your teams success may be hanging on a very thin thread indeed!


References


1. Barabasi, A., 1999. "Emergence of Scaling in Random Networks", Science Volume 286, 1999, pp.509-512
2. Gladwell, M., 2000. The Tipping Point, Little, Brown & Company, pp. 15-29
3. Granovetter, M., 1973 "The strength of weak ties", American Journal of Sociology, Issue 6, pp. 1360-1380
4. Putnam, R. 2000 Bowling Alone - The Collapse and Renewal of American Community, Touchstone Press




About the author

Ken Thompson was formerly the European IT Manager with Reuters in London and Managing Director with VISION Consulting in Belfast. At VISION, Ken spent over 10 years successfully delivering services to clients in the Financial Services, Government and the Small Business Sectors. Recognized as a leading expert in the growing area of Virtual Enterprise Networks, Ken also helps distributed business teams in medium and large-sized organizations become successful through a unique approach to team design and working practices. Ken is the founder of www.bioteams.com – a research blog dedicated to how organizational teams can learn from nature’s best teams.


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