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Is Bacon at the Center of the Universe?

Posted by Mark Bennett on June 7, 2009


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Not here either.

No, this isn’t a cosmological question regarding pork products, but really about Kevin Bacon and his position in the Movie Universe. Although not at the center, he is closer than a lot of other actors. Understanding the principles behind this can help us find ways to develop talent more quickly and effectively, which benefits both the employee as well as the employer.

We already discussed the principles that show how social networks can help form “weak ties” that foster innovation and breakthrough thinking. It turns out that the book, Driving Results Through Social Networks points out another principle* from the game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” It can help shed light on how networks and how they are developed can contribute to the success of high performers. This is achieved by building the right kind of network, which not only benefits the individual (and thereby serves to motivate them to put effort into this activity), but there’s a big payoff for the organization as well with these better-built networks.

Authors Cross and Thomas point out that being more central in a network (where the network is the total of all the people and their connections to each other) typically means having more numerous and diverse contacts and therefore closer access to a greater number and wider variety of information, ideas, resources, and opportunities. Note that it’s the combination of number and diversity that generally lead to this. For example, having a huge number of connections to a very narrow segment of a network probably means the connections are highly overlapping, which limits access to the rest of the network.

By having that closer access, an individual can more effectively tap into the network in order to achieve more than they otherwise would, be it goals, career development, etc. In turn, the company gets more productivity, increased innovation, and enhanced engagement from having employees more effectively connected.

There is a danger in looking at this single-minded. For example, grading everyone on a one size fits all “centrality score” is apt to backfire. How central in a network one is helps some individuals more than others based on their role, for instance. The definition of the network as all the people and their connections leaves open some questions. In some cases, you may not want to include every department in the company, but rather the pertinent departments from across all the business units. For some individuals, it makes sense to include more external networks, like industry groups, along with the key groups within the organization. Other individuals might be very central in a particularly intense area of expertise within the company. Remember that all the members of the network contribute to it in a wide variety of ways and it doesn’t serve any purpose to try to force everyone to be the same – that defeats the very usefulness of the network itself.

———————————————————————————————————-

*Briefly, the principle works like this: while there are a large number of actors, there are hardly any that are more than 3 “steps” away from Kevin Bacon (he is only two steps or less away from almost 25% and three steps or less away from almost 90%). By having so few steps to so many other actors, Kevin is better positioned than the average actor to find out about and exploit an opportunity. Of course, we all know his talent, experience, “look”, etc. all affect whether an opportunity will be opened to him, but a moment’s reflection tells us that these “connections” (to use the cliché) have a big impact as well.

How does this work and how did his network develop this way? Those two are related. By virtue of a combination of the total number of stars with whom he worked as well as who those stars were and with whom they’ve worked, Kevin has a network that reaches relatively quickly to a greater share of actors. This came about by his choices on what movies to star in and/or with whom to work. It’s likely that there is more diversity in the genres, cast, etc. in each of those choices. In contrast, other actors, whether due to type casting or personal preference, had made more narrow selections and their networks are “skewed” towards one area of the network. For example, someone might select for or get typecast as the slapstick comedian or the horror movie queen, and that would restrict the other actors they work with, reducing the share of the total network they have access to, and in turn impact the kinds of opportunities they get.

Photo: Sean Munson

At the time, I thought this was an interesting way to label their crosswalks. It turns out there’s more too it: “On September 25, 2004 Wallace’s Mayor Ron Garitone proclaimed Wallace to be the center of the Universe. Specifically, a sewer access cover was declared to be the precise location of the center of the Universe. A specially made manhole cover was made to mark the spot. It bears the words ‘Center of the Universe. Wallace, Idaho.'”

(Fly to in Google Earth | See in Yuan.CC Maps)

8 Responses to “Is Bacon at the Center of the Universe?”

  1. Mark – excellent post with some great insights. I am also a fan of the works of Cross and his colleagues and one of the takeaways that I have from their research is that simply being ‘central’ in a network and having numerous connections is not always indicative of optimal performance, or even relative strategic importance in an organization. Office managers, administrative personnel are frequently ‘well-connected’ and central in enterprise social networks, but are typically not the drivers of strategy, or high value added initiatives. And the authors also correctly point out, high connectivity can sometimes be caused by an old-school information ‘hoarding’ mentality, the old ‘knowledge is power’ mindset. Sometimes the ‘central’ actors in an information network are really barriers or bottlenecks to effective performance. Enterprise social network analysis is certainly a fascinating, if complex undertaking, and I am really glad to see you writing on this topic.

  2. Nice post!

    Here are many case studies of social networks in organizations…

    http://orgnet.com/cases.html

    Also this article on developing Talent with social networks…

    http://is.gd/TlG1

    Enjoy!

  3. Meg Bear said

    Mark, Just saw Kevin Bacon last night on Frost/Nixon and thought of you ;-)

  4. @Steve (http://twitter.com/sbjet) – Thanks, and you are absolutely right – just like tools, networks should be viewed as “necessary but not sufficient” conditions for success. And like you’ve said, that doesn’t make them unimportant – different tools and different networks will have good or bad impact, so choosing which tool and what kind of network is vital. It’s just that in themselves they won’t guarantee success. As you point out, misused they can actually cause harm.

    @Valdis (http://twitter.com/valdiskrebs) – Thanks, and thank you for the pointer to your website and the terrific paper. Excellent resources! I encourage everyone to check them out if they haven’t already.

    @Meg (http://twitter.com/megbear) – Thanks for reminding me to see that movie ;-)

  5. shoemakes said

    For what it’s worth… along the lines of Steve’s comment, there is a newish site called UpMo (for Upward Mobility) that puts you through a quick and dirty diagnostic to match you to your networking “ideal type.” Aspiring to have a broad and diverse network of “weak ties” is only one potentially successful strategy among several.

  6. [...] connections than others are somehow not as effective (or vice-versa?) As Steve Boese commented on a previous post, simply measuring the number (or extent) of connections doesn’t really tell you whether or not [...]

  7. [...] assisted by reaching out and strengthening weak ties. That notion was covered in this previous post about the advantages of being more “central” in a given network through the creation and [...]

  8. [...] It’s less obvious that finding others’ strengths is valuable.  But, it is.  In fact, understanding and utilizing others’ skills can be exponentially more valuable.  After all, you are just one person and you can only do so much.  Partnering with others allows you to multiply and broaden results. [...]

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