Innovation, Strategic Networks, and Social Media: Why I’m Here

I suspect that most of my academic colleagues think I’m crazy. They don’t understand social networking, especially not Twitter. And they really don’t understand what I am doing here.

I could explain why I’m here in many different ways and there are certainly many things I get out of social media (including relationships with some wonderful people). But honestly, one of the main reasons I’m here simply comes down to this: ideas, ideas that drive innovation and allow me to forecast trends.

Innovation and Networks

One of the most valuable papers I wrote in graduate school was a paper on innovation for a course on social work administration. I discovered then that if you want to innovate, then read outside of your field. A Harvard Business Review blog post on the Three Networks You Need confirmed the importance of noting trends outside of your familiar domains.

The authors, Linda Hill and Kent Lineback, write that managers/leaders need three kinds of social networks: operational, the people you need in order to do your work; developmental, the people who have helped you grow as a manager and leader, and to whom you turn for advice; and strategic, the people who will help you prepare for tomorrow. In other words, strategic networks are key to anticipating changes: “You need a strategic network because the forces that drive change in your field will probably come from outside your current world.

Strategic Networks, Weak Ties, and Social Media

Hill and Lineback state that strategic networks can often come from “weak ties,” that is, people we don’t know well but connect with infrequently (e.g., 1-2 times a year). However, it’s important to note that the research on which the concept of “weak ties” was based was done in 1970 (see The Strength of Weak Ties by Marc S. Granovetter), which raises the question for me about how social media might influence this concept.

I think that social media can feed strategic networks, even when we don’t have a mutual relationship with the people we are learning from. For example, I follow some people on Twitter that I really don’t interact with, but who post awesome content that covers a wide range of topics. These people are important sources of information about key issues outside of my discipline (social work).

When people tell me they don’t know how I stay abreast of all the information that I know, I confess that I don’t spend a lot of time looking for it. Instead, I look for people “in the know” who I can learn from. I take advantage of the outstanding work that they do discover and curating key content and then just check in with them periodically.

I may develop mutual relationships with some of them. But in some cases, it might simply be that I am learning from what they are sharing. Either way, this content keeps me abreast of trends outside my profession, so I am usually able to anticipate trends well before they “arrive” in my world. I think of them as my virtual key informants.

My biggest struggle with social media is that I want to gravitate toward following the people who are similar to me. For example, over the past year, I have grown to connect with an awesome international network of social workers on Twitter. I have learned a great deal from these colleagues, and I appreciate each and every one of them. So naturally, I want to spend more time interacting with them.

At the same time, I am mindful of how important it is for me to stay connected to my virtual key informants, even though they may not be similar to me or even know that I exist. Because this is often where the inspiration for something totally new originates. I think of these virtual key informants as part of my network of “weak ties”–part of my strategic network– even though, strictly speaking, I don’t have a relationship with most of them.

I would love to hear how others relate (or not) to some of these concepts. Can you connect to the idea of a strategic network? How does social media relate to this idea for you?

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Nancy Smyth

Nancy J. Smyth, PhD, MSW, LCSW is professor and at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, as well as a licensed clinical social worker. She has over 30 years experience in social work, primarily in the areas of trauma and addictions. She's an occasional blogger interested in the human connections made in digital environments. technology and social work, and the impact of technology on our identities, families and society. View all posts by Nancy Smyth

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