Resilience from weak links and acquaintances, not strong links and friends

Published by Tony Quinlan on

A recent conversation with client-turned-friend Kecia Bertermann*, Monitoring and Learning Director at GirlEffect, prompted some thoughts around global social networks – something Kecia’s been working on generating for young girls in varying countries.

While the focus is naturally towards creating friendship groups – strong local links in individuals’ networks – as a core part of increasing confidence, building support and giving them confidants to turn to in times of difficulty.  And as an initial focus, this is critical for the girls that GirlEffect works with as part of its programmes. A necessary first step, but not sufficient if circumstances change in the area/region.

The interesting discussion then ranged to the importance of weak links in girls’ networks – the links beyond their immediate community. With the current GirlEffect programme, that’s building international links across borders and potentially continents.

Much of the focus of writing about strong vs weak links in networks talks about the benefits to the overall system and organisation – but here I want to argue for potential benefits to the individual of having weak links.

Strong links help with the day-to-day tasks and situations by building relationships that are familiar and easy to access. They’re the people we see regularly – the friends we chat to all the time, the colleagues we work with and, for GirlEffect, the girls in the same mentor group or community. They support us with regular life and become habitual – we’ll develop short-hand phrases and actions, things that we understand that carry many layers of meaning that will be opaque to people outside the group.  From Granovetter’s paper:

“there is … empirical evidence that the stronger the tie connecting two individuals, the more similar they are”

Weak links are irregular, infrequent links we have that rarely occur to us, but have meaning when they do – the Christmas card** that makes us think we should be in touch more, the chance meeting at a conference, the occasional news that pops up on a social media site and, for GirlEffect, the girl who connected. When life is trundling along, following familiar patterns and paths, we rarely need or see these individuals – their life inhabits a different sphere from our own.

The crucial point is when circumstances change, when something unusual happens. In times of uncertainty and change, we may get support from our strong links, but the likelihood is that the situation is as unfamiliar to them as it is to us. We need people from outside the immediate environment who have skills/experience/knowledge that is relevant to the new problems that are emerging.

And those weak links are our best bet for accessing new and relevant support. People who we have some connection to, but who participate in different situations.  Or may be closer to other groups and can access their own links (weak or strong) to what’s needed.

For GirlEffect, a girl in Bangladesh who’s connected via GirlEffect Mobile with one in Nigeria may be a good source of information and support if there is a surprise flood. In an organisation, a Marketing Manager delivering in a constantly moving market would be valuable to a Product Manager facing a sudden new entrant into a previously stable market. In my own case, choosing a car for a new learner driver was easier after a conversation with a less-frequent-than-I’d-like friend who writes car reviews for a national newspaper supplement.

While the weak links help system-wide resilience, at the individual level, it gives people access to knowledge they wouldn’t normally have.  (And in many communities that access can also then lead to increased status within the immediate community – itself a potentially valuable impact for programs like GirlEffect Mobile.)

Weak links, however, don’t come through traditional organisational structures – and may not arise from organisational activities, if these are too highly constrained.  In my experience, they tend to arise through informal networks and activities – through roles and identities that we don’t associate with our day-to-day responsibilities.  In some organisations, this might be clubs or associations – sports, LGBQT, religious groups. In the past Smokers’ Corner (or the Smoking Room further in the past) was a strong builder of weak links, although with the diminishing numbers of smokers those remaining may have stronger links as a result of the solidarity they feel.

For organisations going through high degrees of change, particularly working in fast-changing environments, one lesson is to encourage alternative organisations and networks.  There are things you can do to improve the weak links in your organisation – but you stimulate them, don’t mandate them.  If you’re interested, get in touch – it’s always a fun engagement and the payback in terms of resilience in an organisation (and often in terms of morale) is high, if invisible.

*Kecia is also a co-author with Becca Smith (another client-turned-friend) of the excellent Using SenseMaker to understand girls’ lives: Lessons learnt from Girl Hub case study, available here.  GirlHub (now GirlEffect) first used SenseMaker® in Ethiopia and Rwanda, working with Irene Guijt. Later Rwanda projects were done in conjunction with Narrate (with the excellent Stef Deprez handling the massive analysis task of the National Attitudes Survey).

**Christmas cards are wonderful things, I hear. I fully intend every year to make time to buy, write and send them. It’s a great and familiar intention – but year on year it rarely happens as I’d wish. My apologies to all those who still send me their cards – I love reading them and feel doubly guilty and optimistic that one day I’ll reciprocate.

1 Comment

Peter Stanbridge · 5 September 2017 at 8:20 pm

A very interesting blog and nice to see this explained within the context of real projects. And some nice examples of how weak links might be established within an organisation. I was drawn to this blog reading the title because I am just on my second time through this book (read about 2 years ago). It is a great book outlining some of the more technical details and application areas in biology.

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