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Social networks: what are they, why are they important, and how do they work? I’ve been reading up on social networking theory and in this post, I share some of my notes thus far. This is the first part of a two-part post. In this post, we’ll look at five principles that seem to dominate the scholarly discussions about social networks: (a) the connection principle, (b) the pattern principle, (c) the systems principle, (d) the grafting principle, and (e) the needs satisfaction principle.

1. The Connection Principle

People and organizations function by connecting to one another.
I know, that sounds like one of the “Duh” statements we often hear from scholarly papers. My guess, however, is that we would all be surprised at how often studies of organizational effectiveness focus solely on the structure and market strategy of the organization, with little or no recognition of the impact of its social networks.

You can’t understand an organization without understanding the way its people relate to one another and to the outside world.

You can’t understand an organization merely by looking at its organizational chart and market share.
Social networks are a key to organizational life.

2. The Pattern Principle

The idea here is that, over time, social networks take on predictable patterns. In spite of the complexity of our social relations, recognizable patterns of clumping, connecting, centralizing, and controlling begin to take form.

3. The Systems Principle

Our social networks are also nested within other social networks, so we develop systems of social networks within larger systems of social networks.

People represent a set of overlapping groups. These are not just formal groups such as churches, clubs, and so on, but also demographic and ethnic groupings.

When you talk with someone, your’re not just talking to that individual, but also to the various social networks to which that person belongs.

4. The Grafting Principle

These patterns of relationships graft themselves into the structures and routines of the organization.
People become grafted into a group network when they prefer to interact with the members of that group over the members of other groups. When this happens, they begin to develop social ties within the group rather than outside the group.

5. The Needs Satisfaction Principle

People join groups or communities to serve their needs.

Social links are useful to people and groups. They serve some function the individual or group considers important. People seek and expect three benefits from their social networks: (a) friendship, (b) information, and (c) guidance.

According to one study, the success of treatment for mental illness was proportional to the strength of the networking between the various agencies treating the patient.

When people are faced with multiple options, they turn to their social network to help them make the right decision.

Why Is This Important for Organizations?

  1. Because it affects our creativity and innovation. New learning comes more readily to organizations that have people who are loosely connected to other organizations. While close friends may be more willing to help us in times of need, acquaintances are more apt to provide useful information.
  2. Because it affects the longevity of the organization. A network of social circles connected to other circles by weak ties is more likely to endure and adapt than a group of isolated cliques.
  3. Because the quality of our social networks is linked to organizational performance, success, and adaptability.

When an organization’s people continuously create links not only with the people inside the organization, but also with those outside the organization, a ripple effect of influence is produced in which the organization affects its environment and the external environment provides valuable information to the organization.


Photo by striker, Licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.