The more people you connect with, the smarter you will get – right? Actually wrong. Large social networks can actually make you dumber than you started. What you need is diversity. We take a look at the research on performance improvement and social networks.
To understand why large networks can make you dumb we need to look at the work of the Social Physics team at MIT led by Sandy Pentland. One of the key findings of their research is the concept of idea flow across social networks and the development of echo chambers. If you want to want to improve your performance through social networks and social learning you should carefully consider their findings.
Idea flow, social learning and performance
The MIT team did a detailed study of idea flow and performance on the eToro trading platform which is summarized in this article on Harvard Business Review.
The research found the traders that engaged very little with other people on the platform had the poorest financial returns. They found that as traders engaged more with other people on the platform and ideas flowed between them, the performance of individual traders went up. This all sounds good, the more I engage with a larger network of people the smarter the decisions I make.
However, as the networks got larger at a certain point the performance of the traders actually declined. What the MIT team found was that at a certain point the idea flow become an ideas loop where people were simply repeating what others have said. Effectively the traders were in an echo chamber. So instead of gaining better insights the reverse happened. People were no longer hearing new ideas but were being affected by group think. As the network grew larger the results actually got worse.
This is summarised in the chart below by Profuturists. Notice how as the rate of idea flow increases performance actually declines.
The wisdom of the crowd becomes undermined when ideas are just recirculating. This reminds me of Steve Jobs argument that you must surround yourself with diverse people to be creative and innovative. This is very much in line with Sandy’s thinking about the best social explorers.
“Social explorers spend enormous amounts of time searching for new people and ideas—but not necessarily the best people or ideas. Instead, they seek to form connections with many different kinds of people and to gain exposure to a broad variety of thinking.”
Why does diversity of ideas work?
Social learning takes place through observation and imitation of ideas that work. This has been the case since the very earliest days when humans were foraging for food and searching for shelter. Good decision making is learning from the success and importantly failures of others. In essence at a certain level you can improve performance through the wisdom of the crowd.
However, some people learn and perform better than others. Robert Kelley of Carnegie Mellon University did at a study in 1985 to understand what distinguished a star performer from an average performer. He found that the best researchers did “preparatory exploration”. They proactively developed relationships and connections with other experts and sought their help with completing critical tasks. The networks of the star performers were far more diverse than the networks of the middling performers. The study concluded that because the stars could see the situation from a variety of viewpoints, they could develop better solutions to problems.
Sandy’s own research has found that to improve performance you need to promote opportunities for engagement with people from across your business and external social networks. He argues:
“the number of opportunities for social learning (which include informal face-to-face interactions among employees) is often the largest single factor in company productivity.”
More diverse engagement can be promoted by things as simple as providing larger lunch tables for more people to meet or having joint coffee spaces. More diverse engagement can also be encouraged through webinars and social networks.
The danger of crowds
If a social network is homogenous there is a real danger of group think. There is a natural reassurance in following the same strategies as your peers, it gives you confidence. However, when ideas start to recirculate it becomes dangerous. You may think everyone has arrived at their own conclusions for example about the best forms of content marketing but in reality it is the same idea recirculating. It is reassurance through group think not original thinking or research. This is what Sandy calls the “echo chamber” effect.
You need to fine tune your network so you have enough diversity and idea flow. Sandy argues:
“success depends greatly on the quality of social exploration—and on whether your information and sources of ideas are diverse and independent.”
What does this mean for your social networking?
People who lack a diverse social network are prone to suffer from the “echo chamber”. In social media for example people follow people with large numbers of followers, these followers retweet the same ideas whose followers retweet them in turn. You see the same ideas and ‘wisdom’ being shared again and again. The danger is you are not exploring new ideas but simply hearing an echo.
If you follow the same people that everyone else follows the danger of group think becomes very real and your performance can actually decline. In real terms, if you only look at what your top 5 competitors do, and they do the same, what will happen? You’ll end up all offering variations on the same products and services. Then a new competitor comes along with a completely original idea and defeats everyone. Much like Uber or AirBnB have turned their industries upside down.
You need to find people who share interesting ideas that are outside your professional area to reduce your exposure to the same ideas recirculating. To stay productive, you should follow influencers but make sure you follow a diverse group of influencers from different industries. Tweak your networks regularly, remove people who are not adding value or just amplifying the echo. Add new people from diverse disciplines to see what happens. Your network should be constantly evolving.
To paraphrase Steve Jobs again: Think different. Be curious. Be a little random in who you connect with and what inspires you. The grey area between disciplines (e.g. sales and poetry, engineering and music, marketing and….well, you decide) – that’s an original, interesting place to hang out.