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Business schools are inherently interdisciplinary, with scholars often spanning subjects from physics and maths to psychology and sociology. This is why business schools are strategically important both to universities, where interdisciplinarity fosters innovation, and to business itself, as the boundaries between strategy, decision sciences and marketing, for example, blur and become increasingly flexible.
As a sociologist, it has been a pleasure to reflect how the pioneering work of Mark Granovetter offers lessons for business education and its students. Granovetter is an American sociologist and professor at Stanford University who is renowned for his work on the “strength of weak ties” and the importance of social networks as sources of information and advice in getting a job.
Granovetter spotted the importance of “weak ties” in finding new information about job opportunities and careers. This often comes not from a person’s family and friends (strong ties) but from those in a wider network (weak ties) who have access to other sources. Today, these might be your second or third connections on LinkedIn. This is the crux of his 1974 book, Getting a Job.
These ideas were expanded as Granovetter came to see economic relations between individuals and organisations – be they businesses, charities or other forms of economic organisation – as embedded in social relations. The concept of “embeddedness” is critical for recognising that economic life does not exist in an abstract economic sphere independent of social relationships.
Granovetter applied these ideas to understanding innovation networks, entrepreneurship, pricing practices, corporate governance, corruption and much more. It is a perspective that underpins economic sociology – a field pioneered by Granovetter and Swedish sociologist Richard Swedberg – giving a wider understanding of business and management.
The significance of social networks is recognised by individuals and organisations, most especially in the digital world in which we now live. The popularity of LinkedIn and Twitter is testimony to the power of weak ties, proving a powerful tool for creating and maintaining contacts and using them when doing business across the globe.
Universities and deans certainly appreciate the role of alumni in business education. Students gain much from hearing alumni talk about setting up their own businesses, securing funding, surviving setbacks and so on, as well as offering internship opportunities and employment upon graduation.
The importance of social ties and networks in the information age as well as our capacity to create more information by analysing big data cannot be denied. We find ourselves awash with information and various forms of data that can inform decision making. The amount of information at our fingertips can inhibit decisiveness, however, if we cannot see the wood for the trees.
Decision making often requires us to digest information efficiently and effectively and this can require shortcuts. Advice and guidance provided by trusted colleagues in our social networks are crucial. For instance, I have examined how parents look beyond official information and draw on social networks when choosing schools for their children.
Granovetter’s insights can be applied in many ways in a world that is very different to the one in which he was first thinking and writing in the early 1970s.
It is the interdisciplinary nature of his ideas – straddling sociology and economics – that proved so innovative. This is what business schools are so good at, in both research and teaching. They are pivotal to universities – collaborating with colleagues in other areas such as physical and engineering sciences and human and medical sciences.
These insights into economic relations are hugely practical as we see the boundaries of activities in the business world break down and become more porous and flexible in the pursuit of sustainable growth and success.
Fiona Devine is head of Manchester Business School