Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Or why KV will be a Genius

[File Under: Course Reviews]

I've discovered an interesting behavioral pattern. I seem to enjoy more the classes I audit than those I am enrolled in. Last quarter, I was in a class on Organizational Behavior and, to caveat - for the 6-odd weeks I actually went to the class, this was the class for which I prepared most thoroughly the cases and readings. This is playing itself out again this quarter. This time, I am in an absolutely fantastic Ph.D class called Social Network Analysis, taught by the way cool Prof. Ron Burt. Proof of Life: I've actually been 'reasonably' on time to both the classes we've had for this course so far ;-)

This is the only professor I've had at the GSB who uses a Mac! And, not one, but two. Earlier today, he was demonstrating how to use the statistical software to do the mucho regressions required of the class, and he was using Virtual PC to run as it is a Windows-only piece of software. He kicked off the software, showed us the results and was about to move on when the rest of the class, working on their PC's, said that they were still waiting for theirs to load. He goes: "A Macintosh pretending to be a Windows machine is faster than an actual Windows machine?" Did I say he was Way Cool? But, I digress.

The class is about understanding social networks, in a broad sense. In the first class, he showed us a short clip about Steve Jobs and his Macintosh team, and a team at DG in the 80's out to develop a faster 16-bit processor. After we saw it, he started to collect what he termed 'emotional data', which was basically what we felt about those teams, the connections that bound their members, how they worked, why they were successful etc. It was a fascinating exploration of these cult-like structures, and how they can be an effective tool to exact an almost slavish productivity from the group, all of it given willingly.

Today, in typical some might Chicago fashion, we went data crunching. We created sociograms and then started to analyze how people find themselves at differing points in these networks. Social networks typically take the forms of several clusters with connections between them. Nodes on these graphs are people, and the lines who they connect. Turns out that there are two typical leadership roles in such networks. One is being in the thick of a cluster, completely interconnected to everyone else inside. The other is that of being a bridge, at the intersection of 'social worlds.' The former is very 'central', but typically wedded to a small group of ideas which are championed by the surrounding group. The latter, on the other hand, brings in variation due to his/her being part of several groups and exposed to heterogeneity of approaches and, more critically, though processes.

We then looked at how this maps to creativity and innovation. Research indicates that innovation can be traced as a chain, with the key transit points being these folks who are the interchange of ideas. But, what is it that makes them valuable? For one, the breadth of information they are exposed to expands, due to an increased likelihood of seeing differing views of doing things. Secondly, due to their plugged-in-ness to disparate networks, they typically get information earlier than most outside of the clusters. Both of these put them in a position where they can effect what my professor calls 'information arbitrage.'

There is an interesting manifestation of this arbitrage opportunity: Genius. Prof. Burt asserted that genius is a social phenomenon, not so much an individual characteristic. When one sits at this social intersection, they can 'see' opportunities. This, to repeat, is due to the fact that s/he can see variations in ways of doing things, and if they come up with an idea, they know where to sell it. Ideas do well not just because they are inhrently great, but "because they find great adherents." The more you live at the intersection of social worlds, the more likely your idea is going to be deemed a great idea. And, since people typically associate ideas with the one who espouses them, your transfering of one set of thought processes from one cluster to the other will deem you a genius to the latter if it is the first time they have been exposed to it. I thought that was pure distilled common sense. Way cool.

Which led me to think: how does this apply to business school? I look around, and there is definitely a social network structure at play. There are 'cliques', if I may, of students who are very close to each other, and there are the 'social butterflies' who are not wedded to one but flit between many.(As well as a decent number of outliers whose connections to the rest of the community are tenuous at best). If the thesis of the class is to believed, the butterflies will be more creative and successful than the clique-sters. But, it is still an overall closed network of MBA-types being groomed towards a mostly similar style of thinking. What would be most beneficial is for each of us to be plugged into clusters that are completely disparate and dislocated from the people we go to school with.

Like, say, surfers in Biarritz.

I did a double-take when I read about KV's plan to stay in Biarritz and commute to school in Londres. But, the more I think about it, the more it seems like a stroke of genius. I learned today that the more one lives inside closed networks, the lesser idiosyncratic their conversations get, and the more they fill with the jargon of the network. They get very 'local' in terms of their language, which is increasingly understood only by their world. Which, if I listen to the people around me at school, is so very true. LPF. TNDC. Closed Lists. Bid Points. Sustainable Competitive Advantage. Surfer Girl. Wait, strike that.

Research presented in class indicates a strong co-relation between idea generation and the heterogeneity of types of network connections of the generators. These people have a 'vision advantage' that translates into higher compensation, better career progression, and even happiness. The last point is due to fewer forced behavioral constrains as they live in these differing social structures.

Translation: KV has a much higher likelihood of being seen as a Genius. And, with a Surfer Girl.
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Blogger shmoo said...

I got an email today from a classmate of ours looking for tickets to a concert on the "secondary market".

03 October, 2006 21:48  
Blogger Le Voyageur said...

What Burt is describing is similar to Gladwell's concept of the Connectors, those that are able to facilitate the flow of information because they manage to occupy many different worlds, subcultures, and niches. I'm not convinced that this person is more often seen as a genius (term being relative I'll give you that), but I can see how their vision may be looked upon as revolutionary by those less exposed to different schools of thought. Remember, most 'geniuses' of the 21st century are given that description posthumously. In their time, they were more likely heretics. No offense to KV of course. ;)

03 October, 2006 22:27  
Blogger PowerYogi said...

le V, you're right. the term Genius here is relative of course, not intended to match upto the Einstein's and da Vinci's of the world, who would fit more of a 'universal' sense of the term. I should have mentioned the dicotomy of perception that exists here: These guys we are talking about, will on one hand be considered geniuses, or some flavor of it, by one cluster and at the very same time, a regular by the group they are transfering the ideas from. Good point, though. And, I think the connection with Gladwell's connectors is bang-on.

03 October, 2006 23:03  
Blogger KV said...

(my genius reply to this post)

28 November, 2006 05:34  

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