What's a Friend Worth? - Knowing Your Social Capital

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Nine hundred and forty-eight dollars.

That’s the annual dollar value of each person in your email address book at work, according to a novel IBM study published in the Winter Information Systems Conference in February 2009.

IBM researchers in the SmallBlue project, together with researchers in MIT, were looking to scientifically determine how valuable electronic social networks are, such as those in a group that primarily communicates electronically. Using mathematical formulas, honed by observing the email traffic and financial success of 2,600 anonymized far flung IBM consultants collaborating on thousands of projects during one year, researchers found that not all email relationships were equal.

In fact, they found that people with strong email ties with a manager, or had a more diverse circle of correspondents, enjoyed greater financial success than those who were more aloof. Teams with an even mix of genders also performed well financially. Individuals have more diverse networks and thus have more people who are reachable within 2 social steps (i.e., your friends’ friends’ friends.) is valuable. Too intensive communications to the same people have negative impact, perhaps because of the repetitive redundant information exchange.

IBM researchers also discovered that the common expression of ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ really is true — with less success attributed to projects with too many managers. Another finding was that an someone whose behavior in emails reflected a ‘gatekeeper’ mentality (insisted on personally approving or enabling every request to other people or to useful information) was, monetarily, a ‘less valuable’ team member. However, a ‘gatekeeping’ project is valuable, when several other projects need to go through it to obtain key information.

The bottom line, according to researchers? Don’t be annoyed if you get copied on a lot of email. It might just mean that you are a valuable member of a social network. By the same token, don’t be flattered if you are constantly emailed to provide, but not receive, information or access to others. It might just mean that you’re just another node on a colleague’s electronic network, and become a gatekeeper/bottleneck in information flow.

The study suggests that today’s generation – accustomed to electronic social networking practically from the cradle, using instant messaging, texting, emails, Facebook, Myspace, and Second Life – is well positioned for a workplace in which meaningful connections to multiple and diverse social networks spread over a wide area.

While you can’t put a price on friendship, maybe you can put a price on that email buddy from your workplace, after all.

Beyond personal level, companies also show interesting relevance between inter-organization network pattern and revenue. IBM will also demonstrate its latest preliminary study between company performance and social networks.

Photo of Ching-Yung Lin

Ching-Yung Lin

IBM Research

Dr. Ching-Yung Lin is a Research Scientist and Project Lead at IBM T. J. Watson Research Center. He joined IBM in 2000, after getting his Ph.D. from Columbia University. Dr. Lin is also an affiliate associate professor in the University of Washington and an adjunct associate professor in Columbia Univ. Dr. Lin is the Lead of the IBM SmallBlue project – an Integrated Socio-Informatics Network Analysis and Application Platform since 2006. This is an IBM Corporation effort including worldwide Research, Software, and Service divisions. Inside IBM, this platform has been capturing and analyzing both people networks, document networks, and the cross-layer links between people and documents. An external product version of this platform (IBM Atlas) is available to other organizations. His researches mainly focus on multimodality signal analysis and complex network analysis, with applications on machine learning, distributed computing, embedded vision system, social computing and security. In 2003, Dr. Lin created and led more than 100 researchers in 23 worldwide research institutes for the first large-scale collaborative video semantic annotation project. He is the Editor of the Interactive Magazines (EIM) of the IEEE Communications Society, 2004-2006, an associate editor of the IEEE Trans. on Multimedia 2004-2007, a guest editor of the Proceedings of the IEEE, SI on Multimedia Security, and a guest editor of the EURASIP Journal of Applied Signal Processing, SI on Visual Sensor Networks, Sept. 2006. He is the General Chair of the 10th IEEE International Conference on Multimedia and Expo (ICME) 2009 of the Signal Processing Society, Circuits and Systems Society, Communications Society, and Computer Society. He was also a Program Co-Chair of the 15th Wireless and Optical Communication Conferences, in 2006.

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Picture of Mark J. Levitt
Mark J. Levitt
11/23/2009 11:22am EST

Hi @Kitty, you can see what you missed in the video above.

Picture of Alexandra Salomon
Alexandra Salomon
11/20/2009 8:33am EST

Really interesting research and Smallbblue sounds like a great tool. Would be nice to extend a sneak preview to conference attendees.

Picture of John Vasko
John Vasko
11/19/2009 1:25pm EST

I thought there was a lot of fascinating content that Ching-Yung Lin had and that he didn’t have enough time to go through it all. Look forward to reading the presentation through.

Picture of Kitty Wooley
Kitty Wooley
11/06/2009 5:58pm EST

This is fascinating and important research. I’ve been reading about SmallBlue and am sorry I can’t arrive early enough Thursday to attend! Best wishes!

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