It is not what you know or who you know, but what who you know knows.

Social capital is the access to resources and information you have thanks to your connections. For life and professional decisions, getting quality feedback on your planned actions is important. We all have trusted advisors and mentors we go to, even if we don’t call them like that. We go to them, not because they are our friends, colleagues or (ex) bosses, but because of their expertise. This is what is meant with what who you know knows. The expertise of your connections make up your social capital. Do not underestimate its value and do not feel afraid of mobilizing it by reaching out to your connections.

Social capital is not about using and abusing the knowledge and resources of your connections. If you do this, you will end up damaging your relationships. Soon you will be alone or only surrounded by people whose goal is to exploit you.

What do academics say about social capital

Social capital is not only about capitalism and seeking monetary reward. Yes, it has the word capital in it. Its first appearance in an academic publication was in 1959 in a German business journal. However, that work did not create any traction. The importance of social capital started in 1988 with JS Coleman article Social capital in the Creation of Human Capital. This was published in the American Journal of Sociology. The other important publication on social capital was by J Nahapiet and S Ghoshal Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage. This is an excellent paper because it explains the importance of human interaction for organizational advantage. In other words, organizations that neglect the human element of their business, will not survive.

Social capital is not about exploiting relationships for your personal gain.

Social capital is about helping each other achieve goals.

When to use your Social Capital?

You should be using your social capital when you need someting to achieve your goal. This means you recognize that you do not have all the resources to achieve your goal.

Social capital takes two forms:

  1. Tangible, for example money, bike, car, couch,
  2. Intangible, such as knowledge, support, comfort.

If you are working on a new product or service, you might want to get input about the user experience or the design of the product. This is intangible social capital. You are seeking the expertise or opinion of others. Or you might ask a friend to invest money in your product.

If you think about it, you use your social capital daily. You just do not call it like that. Being intentional about what you do helps you achieve your goals. This also means being intentional about seeking advice.

Social Capital and Teams

So far I have talked about social capital from an individual perspective. I described the social capital of a person. But teams also have social capital. Team’s social capital is the combination of individuals social capital.

Important here is to acknowledge that team members interact with each other. This means that the social capital of individual team members overlaps. Part of the connections team members have are the same because they work in the same team and hence know the same people. 

This overlap has significant consequences for how resources from team members, such as know-how, are used. Overlapping resources are amplified. This amplification results in those overlapping resources being used more often than unique resources. In other words, team members rely increasingly on the expertise they have within the team, instead of considering and applying knowledge, advice, or ideas from people outside their team.

User stories: How Social capital Creates benefits

Social capital in a community

I conducted a social capital workshop for the Literacy Alliance in Chicago. This is a non-profit focusing on literacy skills. Many different partners are housed in their centers. These non-profits come together to share resources. This requires knowing each other. Being located in the same building helps knowledge sharing, but without knowing what others can offer, co-location isn’t helping much. During the workshop, we drew the social capital of the members who were present. We focused on overlapping social capital. Members discovered that due to recent turnover certain nonprofits were less well connected. The participants planned meetings to get to know each other and gain insight into each other’s initiatives

Social capital in a team

I worked on a research project at a university. The goal was to analyze the impact a small innovative group had on the larger university community. Together with my team, we mapped the social capital by collecting data about information exchange. The result showed a well-connected group of innovators. They produced great ideas and were able to impact some processes and services positively. They also created and tested several ideas about how to improve teaching and better serve students. However, they had limited external social capital. The result was that innovation did not spread outside the group. Subsequent initiatives to capture the innovative spirit and spread the ideas failed due to top managers lacking knowledge about this innovative group and those who never innovated their practices.

Social capital of individuals

When giving workshops about individual social capital, I have participants map their social capital. In the past, it was possible to do this with Facebook connections or LinkedIn connections. However, the tools are not available anymore. Participants especially enjoyed using Socilab to see their LinkedIn network. This excellent tool provided input on the diversity of connections. For example, participants could see if all their relationships came from the same industry. Now, participants have the options to create their social capital map bottom-up using Kumu, or top-down using their email network.

Social Capital Workshops

Social capital is something we all have. Being intentional about it is critical. The first step towards intentionality is to know what your current social capital is. 

For individuals, the workshop provides an introduction to social capital. I will present evidence from research about why social capital is essential. Participants will then map their social capital using a top-down or bottom-up approach. I will also provide metrics that help to explain and describe the available social capital. The workshop will end with an exercise about how to use the map for a specific personal or professional goal.

For teams, the workshop provides an introduction to social capital. I will present research evidence of why social capital is important for teams. The team will then map their internal social capital focusing on collaboration patterns and the knowledge about each others expertise. We then will map the external social capital that is available to teams. I will provide metrics the team can use to describe their social capital. These metrics are especially useful when teams grow, or team members change.


Email me for more information or to organize a workshop for you, your team, or community.

Email me for more information or to organize a workshop for you, your team, or community.