Concept 5: Burt’s Structural Holes and When You Can be a Broker

This is the 5th post in a series. If you’re not familiar with how to read network graphs, you might prefer to start with Concept 1 or Concept 2.

Alice (A), Bob (B)  and Charlie (C) are back, but this time they brought Dina (D). Let’s say that Bob, Charlie and Dina are each part of a different team in an organisation. Bob is part of IT/DevOps, where his team focuses on best practice. Charlie is part of the Product team that is developing the next version of the product. Dina is in Sales which gives her team access to market intelligence.

Alice is the in-house lawyer that works with each of the three teams, supporting Bob on compliance for the DevOps team, writing the software license agreement with Charlie for the Product team, and reviewing marketing materials for Dina in the Sales team. While Bob, Charlie and Dina don’t work together, Alice has the opportunity to work with all three. As a result, Alice is exposed to information from each of the three teams that Bob, Charlie and Dina aren’t exposed to. This gives Alice a unique opportunity to be a broker between these three teams.

A structural hole is a gap between two individuals or groups, where they don’t know each other or have any relationship. If we use this example of three teams in an organisation, where Alice the lawyer talks to IT/DevOps, Product, and Sales but those three teams don’t talk to each other, structural holes exist between those three teams.

The concept of structural holes was developed by Ronald Burt, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He was the first to identify these holes in networks and believed that they were very important for many situations, both in and outside the workplace. People who can use their position in a network to act as a broker between other people or groups can provide a lot of value and receive many benefits.

Ready for the next concept? The next one in the series is Concept 6: McCabe’s Tight-Knitter, Compartmentaliser and Sampler Friend Networks.