Innovation, Strategic Networks & Social Media: Or 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.

Image of a network

A twitter snapshot created by me with the app Web Pages As Graphs (http://www.aharef.info/static/htmlgraph/)

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 discovering 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?

26 thoughts on “Innovation, Strategic Networks & Social Media: Or Why I’m Here

  1. I love that you verbalize so much of what I’ve learned about social media but have never articulated for myself. It’s a lovely thing…how we organically learn to do the things we do and branch out in so many ways. And it sometimes seems like everyone knows about this stuff, but they really don’t.

    Love the concept of “key informants.” And yeah, I’ve got lots of them!

    Great post!

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  2. Thanks, it’s wonderful to hear that it resonates with you! When I write something like this I come close to stopping myself many times because I do think everyone else already knows this stuff or has thought about it this way.

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    • Those of us steeped in it perhaps do, but as you stated in your post, your colleagues thinking “you’re crazy” is because they aren’t online like we are. And even though most people are somewhat connected now, really learning how to use social networks take a lot of time and commitment and not everyone has bothered to do that.

      I also think that a lot of people who might “know” are like me and have never articulated it. I’ve also found that some people who are heavy users but only use social networking in certain ways are shocked at how many other ways social media can be used or simply incredulous.

      On twitter I’ve “hung out” now with lots of different scenes and people in different twitterverses will have different cultures and habits and expectations of each other etc…some people don’t realize that there are these multiple cultures and scenes…anyway…I could go on…

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  3. Thanks, Nancy, for sharing your thoughts and insights on this important topic of social media.

    Aside from the special connections that I have made, I feel that I have benefited and grown in so many ways from my interactions and the knowledge that people within “my” field as well as outside my discipline have shared that I cannot envision living any other way now…

    My world is so rich now…with different viewpoints and perspectives on many different topics and issues. That said, I do understand your dilemma of being pulled towards those who are similar to you.

    Perhaps one way of successfully combatting this could be to create a twitter list of people who are “very different” from you (hidden so as not to be misinterpreted as offensive in anyway) and to make a point of adding to this list at least one person every week and to read through some of the tweets from this stream at least once a week.

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  4. Hi Nancy, As I write this I am watching my blog get mapped ala aharef.info–cool stuff! Your post too, was cool stuff, and I like how you articulated the idea of innovaters read/surf outside their field. This is so necessary, exciting, and uncomfortable!

    My best recent example was at SXSW, where I felt like a fish out of water much of the time, but boy was I learning. I think our current education system inadvertently teaches us to find a silo and stay comfy as soon as possible. I’ve always found the interdisciplinary approach so much more invigorating.

    I like Dorlee’s idea of twitter lists aimed at diversity. This could also help prevent us from the perils of Eli Pariser’s Filter Bubble:

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    • I can only imagine how invigorating SXSW was– a true “jump start” for learning. Thanks for the TED talk on filters–it really solidifies my belief that we need active strategies to bring in perspectives that will keep us innovating and learning outside of our knowledge silos (and one of the reason I love TED talks is that it’s a great source of new perspectives).

      I agree that our education system encourages this. We educate people to acquire depth (which is important, too). I have experimented with how to teach my students to develop new things over the years (e.g., develop an intervention for a problem/population), and it involved teaching them how to bring in “outside” knowledge and learning how to synthesize it. Our doctoral program is individualized and interdisciplinary, so students have to to synthesize divergent areas of knowledge into something new for their comprehensive exams. They really struggle with this stage of their work and over the years I’ve struggled with ways to facilitate their learning this process. Writing this post, reading the comments, and watching the TED talk have all given me a new perspective on that struggle — I can feel that some new ideas about how to do that are percolating. Thanks for helping me do that!

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      • Please continue to keep up your important and strategic work for social work! It’s so important to articulate, as you have done so well, the value inherent in exploring new ideas and technologies and how they will shape the future of our field. I think you squarely fall into the innovator category of the technology adoption lifecycle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_adoption_lifecycle) – keep planting the seeds that will grow tomorrow! Would love to hear some of your recent idea “keepers.” 🙂

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        • Thanks Karen….nice to hear that you think I’m an innovator…I’ve always thought I was more early adopter 😉 I’ll have to reflect on the idea keeper question. Once I integrate them I tend to lose track of them because they don’t seem so new anymore. So at the moment, nothing comes to mind (of course, it might just be that I am in an advanced stage of mind-mush due to a crazy week).

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  5. Hey, you’re one of my “weak connections” and I appreciated your sharing these ideas. You’re also someone I would contact if I needed advice.

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  6. Wow, plenty to think about. It makes for some interesting thoughts about self care. Especially on the area of Career/employment. I guess the question would be, what areas of knowledge do you need to have a better understanding of to be able to assist you in growth in career/employment? It could also be that other areas of enjoyment and learning can also create personal mental diversions. I always liked history, and had a great time figuring out how because of past events it impacts a country, community, and people but have never found interesting history books to read. I apologize for getting a little off track with this post. Ta Ta For Now 🙂

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    • My reply needs to be a little more focused, so here are a couple of key concepts I intuitively picked up on. First is the concept of the various people that you need to network, or connect with in order to grow. As a person who “thinks differently” and has a diffibility in the area of thinking using people as resources and learning from various people is a way of hiding my limitations. So the concept of various networks is an important one. For me, the use of Facebook takes away some of the stigma an allows me to express constructive thoughts, as well as allows me to learn. Second, the concept of having a diverse social network is something that I too have a hard time with. I did like Dorless’ idea of a “push the box” list for social networks. I think that eventually there may be possible research on how social media is a way for people with disabilities is an (know the concept) assistance device to allow and enhance daily living.

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      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts twice Heidi. It’s great to hear how you use Facebook to enhance your learning and expression.

        I believe there is some research now on how technology, in general, and the internet, in particular, can be helpful to people who have disabilities. If you look back through my blog posts you’ll see one example in a post about people with autism.

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  7. I am a MSW who is also pursuing a 2nd Bachelor’s degree in Information Technology. I agree that being outside of your primary stream promotes looking at issues within your field through a different lens. As an innovator, I find it difficult to garner support. I created a social network specifically designed for social workers which provides additional tools to assist in engagement and support for one another. Although, I have had some support, it is difficult to get people to look at it to see what it has to offer. Linkedin, Twitter, and Facebook are great tools, but trying to connect with other members of the social work community is difficult. Facebook and Linkedin prevents you from connect with someone who is not in your network. Not to mention the viruses and spam one will encounter. There are a million groups to choose from but which one do I choose to find support? I created Socialworkhelper.com to make it easier for our community to find each other. To begin conversations that might actually have an impact on the profession. Idealist? Maybe, but at least I am trying.

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    • As a group, social workers are such a conservative bunch about technology. I know of one other effort to do exactly what you’re doing and the last time I was there it wasn’t doing too well. I hope you have better luck with your effort!

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  8. Nancy, I’ve literally used social media to flip my professional network. Initially, I did this to make new connections when I was switching fields, but now I seek out new people regularly to expose myself to different viewpoints and perspectives. This keeps me stimulated and helps reduce ossification.

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    • What you’ve described doing really reinforces the flexibility that’s inherent in social media, as well as how our goals can change. Thanks for weighing in!

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  9. To the extent that social media networking mirrors what we do in the Real World, but within a smaller area typically, I like that you remind us to expand our viewpoints and learning by reaching out to those unlike us. This is key to evolving, greater effectiveness, and the flexibility to deal with new information.

    Besides, it’s fun!

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  11. While I spend some of my time networking within social work, the majority of my time is spent reading and connecting with those outside of the social work field. I find most of my inspiration for teaching and innovation in the field from reading books about theoretical physics and religion.

    I spend my free time interacting with artists, musicians, writers, philosophers – very deep thinkers and others who inspire me to really push my own thinking and innovation. I enjoy others who do not sit still with the status quo, but who enjoy making some kind of deep statement from it, through it or about it. This helps me to present educational material to students in a more innovative manner and helps me to push them to think more critically about the subjects before them.

    It also helps me to expect them to be more creative about the ways that they respond in my classes. Although I will post a more linear PowerPoint for students who are used to a more linear style of learning – I explain to them that I believe that learning is more circular in nature – that all the topics they are learning in their BA programs are similar to the spokes of a basket and we are basket weaving in their education program…they are majoring in social work…..so we are weaving in and out using social work as the thread in between the spokes of history, chemistry, biology, math, science, english, foreign language, etc….and by the end of their four year they should walk away with an entire basket full of knowledge….. so I will use analogies from all different subjects throughout all my courses and remind them how this is building upon their basket of knowledge….rather than linear learning…. (In a way – YES – There is a BASKET WEAVING course in college – LOL)

    So, I might so YouTube videos from a political perspective and link it to a chemistry perspective of entropy and so how that is why once a society is started it will start the process of disorganization and social workers need to be there to help keep re-organizing it or say – hey – this is NOT working anymore – we need to completely start over.

    So, while I must admit I still get a bit confused by the tech world – and much kudos to you being from a generation who did not grow up with computers and who understands so much about technology – I really enjoyed your post and I understand it a lot.

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  12. What a great model you are for your students; they can see how useful it is to view their world from the lens of other disciplines. I hope this is a lesson that they will take with them into their future social work practice.

    The older I get, there is less and less of the world that seems linear to me, except maybe, lines 🙂

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