In 1973, sociologist Mark Granovetter discovered that 82 percent of professionals found new jobs through the contacts they rarely saw, or their weak ties.
“Your good friends tend to be from the same industry, neighborhood, religious group, etc.,” explains LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman in the book The Start-Up of You. “Consequently, their information is similar to yours — a job a good friend knows about, you probably already know about, too.” In other words, your weak ties possess the freshest information: they can tell you about jobs and opportunities you haven’t already heard about.
But recently Marshall Van Alstyne, associate professor at Boston University, challenged Granovetter’s work. He concluded that, in a stable networking environment, Granovetter is right: weak ties are more powerful. However, in a fast-changing environment like today’s, Granovetter is wrong. “In fact, you might want a close, cohesive, strong tie that’s constantly updating you with novel information,” Van Alstyne tells the MIT Sloan Management Review.
Two reasons in particular are worth noting:
Urgency of info. “Consider two different job opportunities,” says Van Alstyne. “One is a great opportunity, one is a lousy opportunity. The great opportunity will disappear because it’s a job everyone wants. The lousy job will stay open longer because it’s a job no one wants. Now if you go to a close tie, a friend who knows you really well… they may be interested in pushing that information to you [as quickly as they can] because they have your interests at heart.” Therefore, the shortest distance between two points in your career may be a strong tie.
Frequency of info. “If the environment changes so rapidly, then you can go back to the same person and learn something new.” Making multiple requests, whether about one possibility or many different leads, is easier with close ties.
Van Alstyne uses the phrase “structural hole,” which is a fancy term for a gap in your social network. If two groups — say, your coworkers and your spouse’s coworkers — do not know each other, there’s a structural hole between them.
The term comes from Ron Burt, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Burt suggests that the strength (or weakness) of your ties is less important than bridging the gaps among groups, potentially giving you access to pools of novel information.