It has become accepted wisdom that weak ties — your acquaintances, distant colleagues — can provide more novel information than close ties. But new research by Marshall Van Alstyne, associate professor at Boston University and a visiting professor at MIT, suggests that in some cases strong ties are better.
Who should you go to for the best information? And how much do you want to share your information? Those are some of the essential questions about knowledge management that continue to be asked both by researchers and by executives. Those questions have become particularly interesting in the past five years with the rise of social media that makes it faster than ever to share information and easier than ever to reconnect with hundreds, if not thousands, of people from your past. Marshall Van Alstyne, associate professor at Boston University and a visiting professor at MIT, is in the thick of it. “My original training was computer science, followed in grad school by managerial economics at Yale then MIT,” says Van Alstyne. “I studied information productivity, social networks, and information flows in organizations to see if we could figure out what it is that makes people more productive.” Van Alstyne ran a five-year National Science Foundation study, tracking information flows and e-mail and what makes individual knowledge workers more productive. He also does research on platform economics, what he calls “the creation of ecosystems involving lots of users and developers such as the platform developed by Apple.” Lately, he's at work on a new study funded by an NSF grant on the creation of knowledge marketplaces. “You can think of knowledge markets as crowdsourcing, but our particular twist on it is the economic optimization of crowdsourcing, applying economic theory to these social science properties,” he says. “How can we get better answers, get higher rates of contribution? How can we do better resource allocation? Can we value the information shared? Can we cause economic growth inside an information economy? Those are our areas.” In a conversation with David Kiron, executive editor of Innovation Hubs at MIT Sloan Management Review, Van Alstyne explains how some of his new research challenges the existing theory about the value of strong ties versus weak ties, and why we should beware of “interrupt-driven communication.” In the social business survey that MIT Sloan Management Review conducted recently with Deloitte, we saw a big industry variance in the perceived value of social tools.