Tag Archives: Ron Burt

Can Universities Be Small Worlds?

 It's A Small World WD-2 from TTucker 8.0 2010

It's A Small World WD-2 from TTucker 8.0 2010

Students in my Networks and the Creative Process class have been thinking about what constitutes the most appropriate network architecture for fostering creativity. Following the work of Grannovetter, Strogatz, Watts, and Burt, as well as others, who advocate a small world network, we have been comparing various contextual architectures to each other as well as to that of a small world.

students compared the architecture of a city to that of the brain.

For example, in our last blogging assignment, students compared the architecture of a city to that of the brain, commenting in each case on how the architecture influences creativity. An interesting exercise, to be sure!

Perhaps I should say a word about small worlds, and why their architectures are assumed to facilitate creativity or–as Ron Burt would say–good ideas. Small world networks are characterized by dense clusters (comprised of close associations, or strong ties) that are linked to other clusters within a network by weak ties (or loosely coupled relationships). According to the theory, dense relationships within the clusters give rise to trust and collaboration, which enable collective action, thereby allowing members to more easily execute tasks.

old hat (from  Fabrizio Savoca)

old hat (from Fabrizio Savoca)

However, ideas within a cluster tend to become old hat–that is, because members are so closely associated, they tend to reinforce old ways of thinking and discourage new ideas. To garner new ideas and be creative requires outreach, based on weak ties, and the brokering of ideas across clusters.

At first glance, universities appear to be small worlds.

How does this idea apply to university settings? At first glance, one might assume that universities are ideal small worlds. Indeed, divided up into departments that are grounded in disciplinary practices and domains, the university is constituted of relatively independent departmental clusters, which are linked only indirectly through structurally equivalent ties to the university administration–an organizational paradigm that dates back to the post civil-war research university (Clark Kerr).

Medieval University (courtesy of Wikipedia

Medieval University (courtesy of Wikipedia


Although universities have long clung to their autonomy and independence from outside influences, of late, growing economic pressures have led them to reach out to their larger socioeconomic environment for financial support through grants, alliances, joint ventures, and patent pools. These outreach efforts have not only been favored by Government but also supported through legislation, which allows faculty members to claim proprietary rights over research sponsored by public funds. As Henry Etzkowitz has described it in his book The Triple Helix, the university is evolving from an ivory tower to an entrepreneurial paradigm.

As the university, as a whole, has reached outward, how have the local clusters–the disciplinary departments–fared? It is here that one might raise a red flag.

 Red Flag Day from Ridock

Red Flag Day from Ridock

Recall that for small networks to encourage creativity, outreach is not enough. External exploration requires in-group exploitation, a point that Robert Axelrod makes in his book Harnessing Complexity. However, a search of the university literature yields sparse evidence that external ideas are being capitalized upon collectively among departmental faculty.

..the overall departmental learning (and the knowledge base of the university as a whole) will likely stagnate.

To the contrary, the modus operandi within academic departments appear to be based not on collaboration but rather on competition–competition for salaries, for grants and funding as well as for peer recognition. Hence, the overall departmental learning (and the knowledge base of the university as a whole) will likely stagnate over the long term. To boot, as Carl A. Raschke has noted, new technologies will exacerbate this situation, serving to fray the ties both within the university community as well as those directed outside.

For a preview of the future, one need only consult M. Mitchell Waldrops’ book, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. In it Waldrop describes how individual scholars, who were in many cases at odds with their disciplinary departments, came together in a very synergistic fashion at the Santa Fe Institute to create the New Science of Complexity. To achieve these kind of synergies, universities might have to consider making some architectural changes to their small worlds.

Blogging in the Interstices

Interstice by gregory lee

Interstice by gregory lee


I have been thinking about interstices a lot these days–that is, ever since one of the Chinese students in my Networks and International Development Class protested that, given institutional lock-in, reforms could never come about in China. I gently begged to disagree. As I told her, and as we had discussed in class, in a networked society, small changes in any one part of the system can have major ramifications throughout. As important, by focusing on these small changes in the interstices of a social order, reformers could remain under the radar, and thereby circumvent the powers that be. The key for those of us who want to bring about change today is to identify the most promising interstices.

The key for those of us who want to bring about change today is to identify the most promising interstices.

Somewhat skeptical, the student persisted, asking for examples. So I provided an account of how the rise of cities in the Middle Ages helped to undermine the European feudal order (Braudel 1992).

It so happened that I was well prepared for the task, having listened only a few days before to a lecture on tape by Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz, in the series Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal, which was sponsored by The Teaching Company. As the lecturer had pointed out, although late Medieval cities originally emerged as an off-shoot of feudal land holders, they eventually took on a new, and transformative, life of their own.

Middle age alley by Vincent Giraud

Middle age alley by Vincent Giraud

In fact, with the rise of commerce and the city merchants that promoted it, Europe was never the same. This new merchant society, which was based on the accumulation of wealth and industrial performance, gave rise to a new class–the bourgeoise–as well as new institutions –such as the guilds– that sought not only to restrict the powers of the nobility but also to extend the social order outside of the parameters of the feudal world itself.

Where are the critical interstices in our global society today? Recent events in Iran provide a clue. Just as, during the Middle Ages, cities went relatively unnoticed as they developed the commercial resources that allowed them to overturn the prevailing social order, so today Iranian hackers have managed to develop the kinds of net-savvy skills required to create a protest movement in an interstitial, virtual space, making it possible for them to outwit a very powerful and seemingly entrenched regime. As described by Murad Ahmed, writing in The Times Online, June 18, 2009:

It has come as a surprise to many, not least to Iran’s regime, just how effectively the country’s young population has been able to articulate and organize [an] opposition protest on the web. New technologies have turned yesterday’s flashmob into today’s political rally. With elements of the Iranian mobile phone system disabled, the internet has become the organizing medium for the opposition and Facebook and Twitter the tools of choice to communicate and organize dissent.

Further contemplating the notion of interstices, I see a new link between some of the ideas that we discuss in my Networks and International Development class and those that we focus on in my class on The Networked Economy. In the latter, we read Ron Burt, and discuss the resources gained by an organization when it develops structural autonomy by bridging structural holes (that is, the gaps in social structure). With the recent events in Iran in mind, it seems that Burt’s notion of structural autonomy is also apropos for describing that situation. For it would appear that the interstices that I speak of in my development class are non other than Burt’s structural holes where– with a little bit of strategic networking–formidable resources and power can be cultivated.

Communications and Complexity: The Need for a Policy Interface

communication by Guacamole Goalie

communication by Guacamole Goalie

Tomorrow, the Communication Culture and Technology Program at Georgetown University will join together with the Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law, Michigan State University, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and University of Konstanz, Germany,
in hosting a conference on Applying Complexity Theory to Improve Communications Policy. The conference is based on the premise that the field of communication constitutes a complex adaptive system, such that we need new regulatory approaches and tools that can take this complexity into account. We plan to cover four topic areas: 1) the value added of complexity theory; 2) tools and methodology for using complexity theory; 3) applying complexity theory to national broadband policy; and 4) building support for, and incorporating, complexity theory into communications policy.

I have been thinking about how one might structure the policy environment so as to foster greater interaction of policy actors and their diverse approaches and ideas

Having been assigned the task of facilitating the final panel, I have been pondering structural approaches to promoting complexity analysis–in particular, I have been thinking about how one might structure the policy environment so as to foster greater interaction of policy actors and their diverse approaches and ideas. My assumption is that to analyze complexity adequately, the policy structure must, itself, reflect it.  Some thoughts come to mind in this regard. 

For example, building on Ron Burt‘s characterization of good ideas, it would appear that policy organizations should be structured in such a way that policy actors benefit not only from strong ties among like-minded associates, but also from weak ties across diverse associations. As Burt notes:

Opinion and behavior are more homogeneous within than between groups so people connected across groups are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving, which give them more options to select and synthesize from alternatives (http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ronald.burt/research/SHGI.pdf)

One might conclude, therefore, that–for complexity to be attended to–the  architecture of the policy making arena must provide links across diverse policy domains. 

This conclusion coincides with the conclusions of a paper that my colleagues Ellen Surles, Qi Chen and I wrote for the Social Science Research Council, entitled Fostering a Communication Policy Dialogue: The Need for a Sustainable Communication Interface. In this paper, we adopted  John Kingdon‘s description of policy making as a non-linear process, which entails the convergence of three different streams–identifying problems, identifying solutions, and making political decisions. Kingdon argues that when these streams converge there is a window of opportunity when policy outcomes can occur. In our paper, my colleagues and I sought to identify the structural properties that would allow such convergence to take place. Viewing these three policy streams as distinct worlds, each with its own habitus, we identified the need for a policy interface, that would help policy actors to communicate with one another. As we argued:

The policy debate can become inhibited and muted in part because many players lack the resources and skills to communicate across these fields of policy activities. It is especially helpful when a number of diverse actors interact and engage with one another to the extent that they create a space where they can find common ground. We call this space the policy interface. Issues rise on the policy agenda when [policy streams] converge in such a way that ideas are translated and actors come to value each other’s perspectives and therefore perceive policy issues in a congruent way.

Much as in the case of Burt’s notion of good ideas, the architecture of the interface that we described provides for both weak and strong ties.  It allowed policy actors from different activity fields to maintain their individual perspectives, while coming together in a common space where they might have a productive–and far richer–dialogue. 

The US communication policy arena lacks such an interface, and policy making suffers as a result.  Jurisdiction is divided among numerous agencies, whose independent actions often lead to conflicting outcomes.  Issues are not considered to be complex; rather they are typically reduced to approximate the specific mission of the agency in which they are resolved.  

Time to Push the Restart Button for OTA

Time to Push the Restart Button for OTA

The outstanding question, therefore, is where might we look for such a policy interface?  Not surprisingly, given my own background, I would look to a government agency such as the Office of Technology Assessment, which not only brought diverse actors together, and incorporated their perspectives in the agency’s research results. As importantly, OTA translated complex problems into narratives that both Congress and the public could grapple with.