Sunday, October 28, 2007

Social Networks, Brokers, and Social Information Foraging

How do social groups collect and make sense of information? How can we scientifically understand such processes and turn that understanding into knowledge that guides the art and engineering of new designs for the social Web? In this post I summarize some findings about the operation of social networks in science and business.

Why Social Information Foraging?

For more than a decade, researchers at PARC have studied information foraging and sensemaking at the level of the individual user., which has had some degree of influence on practice. Now, the Augmented Social Cognition Area (ASC) at PARC is pushing that research to social information foraging and sensemaking with a special focus on the Web. There are many reasons for this, including
  • Recent catastrophic failures in decision-making attributed to a lack of cooperation in collecting and making sense of information. For instance the Senate 9/11 report, and the NASA Columbia report both focus on poor cooperation in finding, sharing, and making sense of infomration
  • Virtually all significant discoveries, inventions, and innovations are the result of collective activity that depend on standing on the shoulders of others.
  • Recent gushing about "wisdom of the crowds" and similar phenomena points to the power of cooperative processes, but things can go wrong too.
  • The Web is emerging (for better or worse) as the primary source of scientific and technical information n both professional and everyday life. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that the majority of online users turn first to the Internet for information about specific scientific topics, 87% of online users use the Internet as a research tool, and 62% use the Internet to check the reliability of facts.
Social Networks in Science

There is a whole scientific literature about scientific literatures. Scientific literatures are interesting because they they are examples of community networks of peers producing content that date back to at least the 18th century. Pamela Sandstrom, an anthropologist who also works in the library sciences, did a study of the information foraging behavior of scholars in behavioral ecology (a subfield of biology). Dr. Sandstrom used a variety of ethnographic and bibliometric techniques to try to get at scholarly information seeking.

One emergent pattern was the way that
individual scholars arranged themselves to be information brokers
That is, they all contributed to their "core" field (behavioral ecology) but also maintained connections to peripheral fields (e.g., mathematics, population theory, psychology, etc.). Individuals could be viewed as "brokers" of information from peripheral fields (e.g., a new mathematical technique) and the core field (e.g., application of a new mathematical technique to modeling behavior).

Another emergent pattern was that individual scholars had different foraging strategies:
  • Peripheral fields involve solitary foraging: 48% of the information resources used to write papers came from solitary deliberate search, information monitoring, browsing, or reading, and 61% of those resources were relevant to the periphery
  • Core field involves social foraging: 30% of resources come from colleagues at distributing or communicating information through informal channels (e-mail; pre-publications; face-to-face recommendations, etc), and 69% of those resources are relevant to the core.
Social Networks in Business: An Example of Structural Holes and the Social Capital of Brokerage

One of the big influences on our thinking in ASC is the work on Structural Hole Theory by Ronald S. Burt. The theory offers some insight about why the scholars discussed above might be motivated to arrange themselves to be brokers across different areas.

Burt's work is built around the analysis of social networks--network representations in which nodes represent people and links among nodes represent social relations, especially ones in which information might be communicated. Such networks tend to have clumpy arrangement. Clusters of people tend to interact with one another and less so with other clusters. The gaps between such clusters aree what Burt calls structural holes. Certain individuals can be identified as brokers or bridges acrss structure holes because they tend to have links that go from one tight cluster of people to another tight cluster (there is a specific network-based measurement called "network constraint" that does this mathematically).

Here's a summary of Burt's hypothesis about brokers and structural holes:
  • There is greater homogeneity within than between social groups
  • People whose social networks bridge the structural holes between groups have earlier access to a broader diversity of information
  • People whose networks bridge the structural holes between groups have an advantage n detecting and developing rewarding opportunities
  • Like an over-the-horizon radar in an airplane, brokerage across the structural holes between groups provides a vision of options otherwise unseen
Corroboration for this theory can be found in one of Burt's studies of a large firm. A total of 673 managers in the supply chain for the firm were studied to produce a social network analysis, and Burt did a network constraint analysis to measure degree of social brokerage. The managers were then asked to submit ideas to improve supply chain management and these were evaluated by a panel of judges. The results showed
  • Idea value increased to the degree that individual were measured as social brokers
  • The salaries of individuals increased to the degree that they were measured as social brokers (factoring out such effects as job rank, role, location, age, education, business unit, and location).
  • Managers who discussed issues with other managers were better paid, more likely to be evaluated positively, and more likely to be promoted.

Our relations and communications with others can be represented as a social network. Specific content flows and dissipates through these networks. In both science and business it looks like certain "brokerage" position are source of discovery and innovation--places where specific individuals get exposed to a greater diversity of ideas, and ideas that may yet be unseen by others in a core group.

More generally, this research shows that it is possible to find things about social information flows that can be specifically related to better information foraging and sense making.

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