Social Capital and the Power of weak ties

Social cap


Social capital in organisations

In the previous class we learnt that social capital exists in the context of connection where there is value in social networks as connectedness and trust between people in an organisation will mean access to each other’s resources and thereby creating social capital. Social capital and network brokerage hence is valuable to an organization as it increases their resilience. I would like to share my personal experience in community leadership, which has made the concept of social capital and network brokerage very real to me, and I believe that my lessons learnt can also be applied to organizational leadership.


Social Capital in Community leadership

Over the span of 6 months, I volunteered with Care Corner Family Service Centre, Queenstown as a community surveyor under their Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) to do ground survey on residents and analyze how Commonwealth as an ageing district, can draw upon existing community resources, tapping on social capital to stay healthy and resilient without an over-reliance on government intervention.


Many elderly residents sit along void decks in Mei Ling Street with excessive free time and no knowledge on what else they can do to pass time. On one of the survey trips, I chatted with an elderly woman, who lives alone and spends all her free time gardening. She excitedly introduces all her herbs and plants to me, and I could tell that she was passionate and very knowledgeable in gardening. She then agreed to give gardening lessons free-of-charge, if Care Corner will start a lesson series and find a group of elderlies interested to learn about gardening. The local spectacle shop was willing to sell glasses at a lower price for the elderly, and a temple nearby was willing to give out free lunches. In this case, Care Corner was acting as a network broker, bringing different parties together to share resources and mobilize previously unrecognized assets and eventually, creating social network and building up social capital to strengthen Commonwealth as a community.


Social capital in organizations

Linking back to the organizational level from a community level, companies should recognize the value of business-to-business social relations in increasing their resilience especially during a period of economic crisis.

On a managerial level, social capital can likewise be built to combine knowledge and convert them into value-adding products and services. In today’s increasingly fluid knowledge-based environment, a professor from The University of Chicago, Ron Burt, predicts that managing an organization’s social capital will become one of its core competencies. An individual with high social capital are often able to have better access to information and people, hence meeting their goals faster. These people can be used as network brokers and organizations can leverage on them to build connections intra and inter-organization to enhance organizational learning and agility hence strengthening the organization, as did building social capital strengthen Commonwealth.

The strength of weak ties

In class, we also learnt that social networks consist of 2 kinds of ties – strong ties and weak ties. I would like to share a theory that is contrary to the intuitive belief that strong ties are more valuable than weak ties. According to Granovetter’s research on the “Strength of weak ties” which you can read up more on here, if you are interested, strong ties add lesser value during information search because we are likely to maintain strong ties with people who are similar to us. On the other hand, weak ties connect us to a world, which we previously are unfamiliar with. Indeed, I have noticed that the few times my mother job-hopped because of information on job postings from friends whom she seldom mention to us, instead of her close group of friends or family members. I did not give it much thought but chancing upon Granovetter’s study, I agree that weak ties can actually increase one’s mobility by facilitating information flow.


Implications for organisations

This is an interesting finding as in the study of Human Resources, we often learn that HR managers should create a culture that encourages strong ties between co-workers so as to foster trust and collaboration between co-workers thereby increasing social capital. This study hence offers an alternative perspective that weak ties in some cases can actually have more value than strong ties. Weak ties facilitate flow of knowledge sharing while strong ties likely exchange redundant information, as they tend to occur among people who already share similar knowledge and perspectives. Hence, organizations, especially those in dynamic industries and value change and innovation should instead foster weak ties, bringing together people with diverse opinions and various sources of information and network. Are you convinced that weak ties are indeed more valuable for organizations or do you subscribe to the traditional thinking that strong ties, building social capital and resilience benefits the organization more in the long run?


The Beauty & the Beast of Nudging

I find it fascinating how nudging has an effect on the motivation of people, as discussed in Session 4 of the class. The dictionary defines a nudge as a “light touch or push.” This nudging theory, posited by Thaler and Sunstein, is concerned with designing of choices that will subtly influence decisions without robbing people of the freedom to choose. Instead of traditional enforcement, nudging focuses on encouraging desired behavior through understanding how people think, in order to influence their decisions in the desired direction in a non-invasive way.

In class, we learnt that nudges include:

  • Playing with the default
  • Adjusting ease and access
  • Using environmental cues
  • Behavioral prompts
  • Social pressure

Examples of nudges I come across everyday:

I would like to share interesting examples of nudges observed around NUS to encourage staff and students to increase physical activities.


Use of environmental cue: Stairs in Yusof Ishak House. While walking towards the lift, people will notice the little signs placed on the stairs reflecting the amount of calories you could have lost if you chose the stairs. On several occasions, I have been nudged to pick the stairs on my way to taking the lift.


Use of behavioral prompt: This is the screen reflecting the shuttle bus arrival information. A casual sign with expected time taken to walk to destinations is given to show the convenience and ease of walking instead of waiting for the bus. When students look up to check for the bus arrival timing, they will be nudged to “burn weight, don’t wait”. In the long run when majority of staff and students start walking, it may become a norm, which creates social pressure and nudges others to do the same too.

Example of nudges the government uses

Governments or institutions, to encourage healthy, safety or pro-social behavior often use nudging too.

Use of social pressure: The back of a Singapore Power (SP) bill reflects electricity and water usage of the average Singaporean. This nudges an excessive user to strive to reduce his consumption.

Another use of social pressure: This ad can be seen in train stations and bus stops, nudging commuters by making them conscious of not falling into the minority 6% of ungracious commuters.


Ethicality of nudging

Nudging, when used the right ways, can encourage positive behaviors among people in a non-invasive way as shown above. However, corporations can potentially use nudging as a mechanism for commercial manipulation to influence customer’s decisions. I would like to raise questions regarding the ethicality of nudging that some companies resort to, which subtly influences customer’s decisions, usually at the sole benefit of the company.

Supermarkets are known to intensely use various forms of nudges to manipulate shoppers. In this VERY interesting article, the author shares about how our very own Giant, Singapore uses nudging to encourage customers to spend more time and money in their stores.

In 2009, Singtel automatically subscribed unknowing customers to Color-me-tones by playing with the default and many customers only found out after they were charged for it the following month. This disgruntled customer expressed the frustration of many of Singtel users:

“Obviously, I do not want any such paid service to add to the monthly running cost…And yet I found myself subscribed, damn. “

Other companies like Amazon nudge customers to buy more through presenting similar items right below the product and suggesting related items to customers,

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Proposed application to the workplace

In the workplace, employers can adopt nudging in order to improve employee health, motivation and productive behaviors:

Employers can use the simple and lost-cost tactic of labeling the steps of the stairs in the building with potential calorie lost to encourage employees to choose the stairs over the lift. Recycle bins can also be placed in prominent areas of the office to encourage good habits of recycling waste paper.

I will end off by sharing 2 interesting videos which talk about how nudging good performance through money might not always increase happiness and motivation in the workplace and how employers can nudge employees to adopt good health practices.