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What Does Kevin Bacon Think of Our Innovation?

Posted by Mark Bennett on May 9, 2009


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No, this isn’t a pitch to start letting Hollywood stars provide input into your innovation process. We’ve already seen what happens with ill-considered application of Hollywood business models. Rather, you’ve probably heard of the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” and how it sprung up from the concept of “Six Degrees of Separation.” While the game is amusing in its own right and the concept behind it is primarily around the “small world phenomenon”, it also can help us understand a bit more how social networks can deliver business value by helping overcome the obstacles that hinder innovation.

You may have heard about how social networks can help us cut across the formal hierarchy through the “power of weak ties.” But something that puzzles people, especially those new to social networks, is how “weak ties” can develop when you mostly start off just managing your “strong ties.” That is, you invite people or accept invitations to connect with people you already work with or have worked with, so it would follow you’ve simply captured your highly-overlapped, frequently-contacted, close-knit circles of friends and colleagues. How do you break out of that circular problem? What drives the building of connections to those less-frequently contacted people that can be such a great source and resource for innovation? Furthermore, what about the people you’ve never connected to who might be the key to a successful innovation?

The Game

So, back to Kevin Bacon. In the game, you try to connect Kevin Bacon to another actor in as few steps as possible, where a step is defined as where two actors starred in a movie together. You win if you come up with the shortest path to connect the two actors (a.k.a. the Bacon Number.) For example, someone randomly selects Richard Burton. You could come up with the path:

  • Richard Burton starred with Robert Wagner in “The Longest Day”
  • Robert Wagner starred with Kevin Bacon in “Wild Things”

This is a path with a Bacon Number of 2. (Kevin Bacon has a Bacon Number of zero.) So what does this have to do with “weak ties” and business value from social networks? Let’s say that when Richard Burton was alive, he kept in contact with Robert Wagner all the years since they had worked together in “The Longest Day.” Robert learns from Richard that a project he’s involved in is in need of someone that Robert thinks Kevin is a perfect fit for. He sets up an introduction and even if nothing comes of it, Richard and Kevin might have found enough in common that they keep in casual contact. This situation plays out all the time on LinkedIn and it can happen inside a company as well. That is, someone you know knows someone who wants to talk with you or can help you with your problem, etc.

The Power of Activity Streams

In this case, Robert acted somewhat as a network “broker” in that he travelled in two other people’s networks, saw an opportunity for mutual benefit, and introduced them to each other. But you don’t have to have to rely on a network broker in order to form “weak ties.” On networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. there is an “Activity Stream” that displays what people in your network are doing. Sometimes those updates can be about your connection’s activity involving another person who is not in your network. These updates might have enough context that they’ll trigger you to reach out either to your connection to learn more about the other person and what they are involved in, or even skip that by looking at that person’s profile and other information.

A direct request or search for expertise can be another source for the creation of a “weak tie.” For example, you might send a question out to your network, it gets routed by one of your connections to someone they know (and possibly re-forwarded from there as well) and when the answer finally comes back, you might develop a “weak tie” to the person who answered your question. Another example might be a “social search” that combines your network into a search for expertise and returns someone who isn’t a direct connection, but rather a connection to a connection, etc. From there you might create a “weak tie.”

Twitter, of Course

We mentioned previously how Twitter is a kind of Activity Stream where most people only display the “tweets” (i.e. updates) from people they are following (sort of a one-way connection.) How can “weak ties” form here?

  • Re-tweeting: The people someone follows can in turn be following other people and they can “re-tweet” interesting updates they receive on to their followers. This might trigger a person to follow the original source of the update.
  • Hashtags: People will insert “#<topic>” into their updates if they want to connect the tweet to a particular topic. People can then search tweets for that topic and find people who they might want to follow.
  • Replies: People can reply to a message from someone they follow using “@<user>”. Their followers will see that reply and this “discussion” might trigger them to follow the other person.

One thing to note is that many of these approaches to forming “weak ties” are enriched via enterprise integration by combining what people are doing in their respective networks as well as what they are updating (e.g. goals, competencies, etc.) or working off of (e.g. worklists) in the enterprise system. Separately, each has useful information, but together they create a powerful combination by reinforcing each other.

Photo: Matt Leclair

One Response to “What Does Kevin Bacon Think of Our Innovation?”

  1. [...] in a group setting.  What’s more, organizations gain tremendous value by enjoying more, diverse innovation as a [...]

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