Social Networks and Structural Holes

Social Networks and Structural Holes by Dr. Greg Waddell

Photo by Author

I am fascinated by the way people connect and form groups.  I recently looked into some of the current research on social networks and want to share some of the things I’m learning.

Structural Holes

To understand a social network, we have to look not only at the connections between people, but also at the points in the network where this connection is lacking. These structural holes in the social network provide potential for organizational growth and adaptation.

A simple example of a structural hole is when person B is friends with persons A and C, but A and C are not yet acquainted with one another. When two people share a common friendship, they are more likely to become friends themselves. For that to happen, person B must introduce A and C, thus closing the structural hole.

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A Structural Hole

Group Density & Organizational Agility

Group density refers to the number of connections there are between individuals in a group divided by the number of possible connections. Some networks are so densely connected internally that they offer few openings for the infusion of new ideas or new people.

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A Clique or High-Density Network

People join groups to meet a need and when all their needs are being mutually met there is no desire to look outside the group. I have known many churches that are in this exact situation. Their leaders can’t understand why the church is not growing because the fellowship is wonderful, everyone loves one another, serves one another, and gets along with one another. How much better could it get?

Such groups lose their flexibility over time because their self-contained world has no connecting links with the changing world outside of the network. In a rapidly changing environment — the environment in which most of us live today — high density social networks are at a disadvantage because they are unable to adapt and learn.

Paradox

OK, so it’s not good to belong to a closely-knit group? Well, that’s not exactly the lesson to take away from this. This area of human behavior presents us with another of life’s paradoxes.

A tightly-knit social network provides opportunities to do things we could never do where the relationships are loose and uncommitted. This is why the Apostle Paul urged the church in Ephesus to “preserve the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3, NJB). Individual cords are weak and easily broken, but when braided they can become strong enough to secure a ship to its mooring.

So, a tightly-knit social network is an enabling force that allows people to do things they could not do by themselves. But it’s important to recognize that a tightly-knit social group is also a limiting force.

The strength of social cohesiveness is good for doing things but permeability is important for innovation. Structural links are important for implementation but structural holes are important for adaptation.

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A Porous Social Network

But the paradox doesn’t end there. Here is where it really gets tricky: our very efforts to bring about needed change and innovation in a network serve to constrain the behavior and attitudes of the members of that network. The efforts to infuse new ideas and behaviors into an organization can easily create a new rigidity, especially within the leadership who worked so hard at introducing the change. Sometimes, the change takes so long that, by the time it is complete, the conditions requiring the change have been replaced by new conditions requiring new adaptation.

So what’s a leader supposed to do? The only thing we can do is work to create strong bonds and, at the same time, open new fissures in the structure through which fresh ideas and new people can enter the system.

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.

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