The World Might Be Small, but Not for Everyone

Why are some employees adept at getting the information they need while others struggle to locate the right in-house experts?

The world is remarkably small. At least that’s the prevailing view of sociologists who contend that people are merely a few connections away from each other (a maximum of six degrees, according to the widely held notion). But many employees in large corporations might beg to differ, especially when they’re having great difficulty finding information they need — important knowledge that resides somewhere in the organization, perhaps in the mind of an expert who works in another department at a different geographic location. In such cases, the corporate world can seem anything but tiny.

The small-world phenomenon in companies recently was investigated by Morten T. Hansen, professor of entrepreneurship at INSEAD; Joel M. Podolny, professor of management and dean at the Yale School of Management; and Jasjit Singh, assistant professor of strategy at INSEAD. In an interesting experiment, they studied how employees of a large global organization went about finding information they needed. Specifically, the researchers tracked search chains: the paths of connections starting from the individuals who initiated the search all the way to the people who possessed the necessary knowledge. Each path might go through several intermediaries before the right person was found. (Details of the research are contained in the working paper “The World Is Not Small for Everyone: Out-Group Status and Homophily as Impediments to Searching for Knowledge Within Organizations,” presented at the 2007 Academy of Management Annual Meeting.)

The study was conducted at a large multinational consulting firm with more than 50 offices in 34 countries. In such an environment, professionals routinely need to obtain help from their colleagues, asking for advice on certain topics, markets, industries or companies. As such, taking the shortest path to the right knowledge can be a tremendous timesaver, greatly increasing the operational efficiency of an organization.

The field experiment conducted at the consulting firm first identified the company experts on four specific topics: transfer pricing, asset productivity, enterprise resource planning and advertising strategy. The consultants in the study then were asked to name those individuals. (It is important to note that the experts did not hold any official title or role to reflect their expertise. Rather, they were “hidden” within the organization.) When the consultants didn’t know who the experts were, they were asked to name other colleagues who might know.

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