Wednesday, January 12, 2005

“Six Degrees” – A Reaction to Professor Watts’ Seminal Work

As I promised in last Friday’s posting, I am returning to the topic of Dr. Duncan Watts’ work: Six Degrees – The Science of a Connected Age. It is not my intent to review the book here; there are plenty of good reviews available from sources more knowledgeable than I about the science of networking. My purpose is to share with you some of my responses to reading this volume as I processed how the information might relate to my profession and my world of networking.

The book is not a user’s guide to social networking. This is not “Networking for Dummies”! It is a thoughtful treatment by an academic theotetician of a fascinating topic – or to be more precise – an intriguing network of interrelated topics.

In presenting the material in his book, Dr. Watts tells two stories in parallel. At one level, he describes the evolution of his work and that of his colleagues in trying to solve the problem of modeling and understanding the dynamics operating within a wide variety of networks. The networks described include electric power grids, social networks, AIDS and Ebola virus epidemics, hierarchical organizational charts in Fortune 500 firms and financial markets.

At another level, Watts uses the story of the arc of his research as a case study to describe the emergence of a whole new branch of science: the science of networks. In one sense, as I made my way through the ten chapters of this book, I felt I had been invited into a microbiology laboratory to view the results of experiments in which Watts and his gifted and visionary colleagues had served as human Petri dishes that had hosted the incubation of germs of ideas that had been cultured from a wide variety of disciplines and streams of thought.

As a recruiter and an avid practitioner of social networking, I found much to ponder in these chapters. Chapter 5, “Search in Networks,” is particularly relevant to the problem of how best to think about finding the right person via directed searches or broadcast searches. I also found enlightening Watt’s tracing of the development of the popular concept of “Six Degrees of Separation,” from its inception in the 1967 research of social psychologist Stanley Milgram into the “small-world problem,” through its current level of cachet in popular parlance.

As a Renaissance Soul who believes firmly in the value of helping companies to discover and to hire broadly-educated generalists as leaders, I was particularly encouraged by Chapter 9, “Innovation, Adaptation, and Recovery.” Standing on the shoulders of two MIT professors, Chuck Sabel and Michael Piore, whose 1984 book, The Second Industrial Divide, warned of a sea change in industrial organization, Watts surveys the challenges of organizational structure and communication in an age of ambiguity. Implicit throughout this book is a point that he makes explicit in this chapter: the only way to function effectively in this world of growing complexity and ambiguity is to utilize strategies of collaboration across traditional boundaries. This principle is certainly true in facing the challenges of creating a new science of networking. In order for researchers to be able to begin to model network behaviors and dynamics, boundaries had to be crossed and chasms bridged that had traditionally separated scientists in their own fiefdoms of physics, economics, mathematics and sociology. I see the same dynamics at work in the nascent field of nanotechnology, in which biologists, physicists, material scientists, electrical engineers, optics specialists and software engineers are all working together to solve problems and seize emerging opportunities.

In much the same way, the only reasonable approach to resolving complex challenges within organizations is to create collaboration strategies that connect individuals and teams that traditional have done their work in isolation from one another. As a compelling case in point, Watts dissects the Toyota-Aisin crisis of 1997 and its stunning resolution.

I am more convinced than ever before that the challenges of complexity and ambiguity in the world of business will be faced most successfully by companies that have the vision to hire as leaders Renaissance Men and Women who understand at the very core of their being the value and power of collaboration across traditional boundaries of thought, academic discipline and functional role within an organization.

I am grateful to Dr. Watts for taking his experience from academic research and making it applicable and accessible to those of use practicing networking outside the world of academia.

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