Management Sciences Research

The strength of weak ties in business

The strength of weak ties

Mark Granovetter, an American sociologist and professor at Stanford University, in May of 1973 introduced his theory on the spread of information in social networks known as “The Strength of Weak Ties”. For more reference – his paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” was published in The American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 78, No.6, 1360-1380).
In his theory, Granovetter suggested a tool for linking micro and macro levels of sociological theory and stressed the cohesive power of weak ties in social networks in a moment when existing network models mainly focused on studying strong ties in small and well-defined groups.

The strength of weak ties in business

Strength of weak ties diagram
The strength of weak ties in business innovation can become highly relevant, especially in competitive environments where product life cycles are becoming shorter and shorter. Therefore, even a small advantage in product or service innovation can be crucial for a company to succeed or to keep being a successful innovator. However, in a setting where resources are scarce and time is limited, should those resources be invested in strengthening and developing few but robust relationships with other firms? Can the weak ties with other companies be neglected by simplifying and following, for example, the famous 80/20 approach?
Granovetter suggested that the “strength” of interpersonal ties could be measured based on the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy, and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie. Bringing that perspective to the management field the “strength” of a tie between two companies could be also assessed in a similar manner. For example, one could suggest taking into consideration:

  • 1) The amount of time that two companies spend interacting with each other.
  • 2) The intensity of the relationship depending on the amount of resources that both companies exchange with each other.
  • 3) The degree of openness and accessibility to each other’s know-how.
  • 4) The services or products that they provide to each other and the relevance of such services or products in their business models or value chain.

All the aforementioned dimensions can be independent from each other and at the same time highly related and could potentially determine whether a tie between two companies can be classified as strong, weak or absent.
The reason why I’m concerned about the strength of weak ties in business relations is because the idea of complexity reduction probably became too widespread in management. I would not challenge that the reduction of complexity makes sense, for example, from an engineering perspective given its cost reduction potential through all the supply chain and product development process. Nevertheless, when looking at this complexity from a business network perspective I still wonder whether this approach applies. The formula of complexity reduction has been happily applied by many consultants without even being challenged most of the times.
Building on Granovetter’s work, the strength of weak ties in business innovation can become highly relevant as a higher diversity and variability of inputs (e.g. customer feedback, technological breakthroughs, unexpected product/service use and functionalities) might provide new ideas for product developers to create something new and innovative. Moreover, taking into consideration how relevant businesswise these weak ties can be and elaborating further on Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” theory, there’s already a set of questions, as food for thought, that might definitely change the perception and relevance of weak ties with other companies. Some of these questions are: What is the relation between the strength of a tie with one given business partner and the degree of specialization of the companies? What is the relation between the strength of a tie and the hierarchy of the business partners in the value chain? How can “negative” ties be handled or turned around to bring more value to the company? And last, but not least, how the network of a given company (successful or not) develops over time depending on the type of ties it establishes with other companies? All these questions are just some food for thought for future discussions.
I’ll be looking forward to keep elaborating further on this topic and do my best to come back with some possible answers.