What is your social capital?

Are you familiar with the terms boys club, 6 degrees of separation, high school clique, who-you-know? The underlying concept is social capital and the importance of your network for your career. Do you know what your social capital is? Have you ever attempted to measure it?

What is social capital?

Social capital is the access to resources and information you have thanks to your connections. Resources can be anything you can imagine: A bike to get to work, money to invest in your idea, a camera to start a new career. The information you can get from your connections also takes many different forms: Advice for a tool, validation that you correctly apply a specific method or a reference to an urgently needed babysitter.

But social capital is more than just the resources and information you can get from your connections. The people you know also have their connections. You might not think about it in the first instance, but through your links you have access to their contacts.

Another aspect of social capital is the degree with which your connections are connected with each other. For example, most people count family members as part of their social capital. Siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, etc. all form part of your connections. In most cases, these people talk to each other. This means that your siblings are also connected to your parents, aunts, uncles, etc. The same goes for colleagues, friends from your local sports club. However, there might be no links between your family connections, and your colleague connections.

 

The power of social capital lies in knowing how your contacts are connected with each other. It is not knowing who-you-know, but knowing who-knows-who-you-know. The reason for this is that in some cases you want unique pieces of information, or you want some information or resources very fast. If you look for different advice or diversity of opinion, there isn’t much use in asking several colleagues. Chances are you will get the same or similar information from them. However, a sibling, a colleague and a sports friend can have a completely different view on a topic and hence give you different advice. On the other hand, if you have a fundraiser it makes sense to talk to several people who know each other. Once one person in this circle of connections will donate to your cause, social cohesion – the pressure to conform to social norms – will push others to also contribute to your cause.

The ability to know how your connections are linked to each other – your network awareness – is a valuable asset. However, in most cases, people have a murky idea about the relationships in their network, bias by recent experiences.

How to measure your social capital?

If you want to be aware of your network, and through this know your social capital, you need to engage in active listening and note-taking. The most accurate way would be to take notes of the names people mention in their stories, check your colleagues LinkedIn network for shared connections and previous workplaces, find out where they lived and what activities they do after work. This will get you an accurate picture of your network. However, it might also feel a bit creepy digging in somebody’s life like that with the express purpose to know with whom they interact.

One less creepy but still effective way is to create your Board of Directors. You will not create your full network, but only the part of your network that you think is relevant for a specific goal. The exercise is straight forward.

  1. On a piece of paper, write a goal on the top. For example, compete in a Kaggle competition, get your project idea approved, acquire a new client.
  2. In the center of the paper, draw a dot. This is you.
  3. Then draw three circles around the dot. Make sure that there is enough space between each circle to add names. Each circle represents a sphere of relationship.
  4. In each circle, you are going to add names of people who can help you achieve your goal. In the first circle, that one closest to you, add names of people with whom you talk often. These are your strong ties. These are the people with whom you interact nearly every day. In the second layer you add those with whom you interact sometimes, and finally in the outer circle are those with whom you interact hardly ever, your weak ties. Feel free to check your social networks for names to put in the outer circle.
  5. After you can’t think about a new name to add, think about how these people are connected with each other. Draw a line between each pair of individuals who interact with each other, without you having to initiate the interaction.

After having done this exercise, you have a visualization of the social capital that is available to you when reaching a goal. Have it nearby by. Chances are you will be adding names and relationships.

If you like numbers you can use this network to calculate some metrics. If the network isn’t too big, you can do this by hand. Alternatively, put the information in a spreadsheet and let a computer do the work. I have suggested some tools further below.

Social Capital Metrics

The size of your network is the number of people that are in your network. In the example above, the size is 23.  Using network jargon, you would say the network has 23 nodes (or actors or vertices).

Your network has 19 edges, links between people. This results in a density of 0.07 or 7 %. This means that 7 % of relationships that could potentially exist, based on the number of people in the network, do exists.

Other metrics you could calculate is the centralization, the degree to which one person is central and holds the network together. Another insightful measure is the number of structural holes, gaps in your network structure, or who is a gatekeeper of information and access to resources.

A list of tools to measure your social capital

As mentioned above, the network awareness of most people is low. Hence it is acceptable to rely on tools to draw your social network. One neat tool is Socilab. This little web tool takes your LinkedIn network and illustrates a network map. One major limitation, related to the way data is transferred from LinkedIn, is that it only shows you 500 random connections. You’ll have to wait for the data transfer limit to reset to 0 to get more data. However, in most cases, it gives you a good enough picture of your network. It also provides some metrics about your network. 
 
 Immersion, a tool produced by MIT lab, lets you visualize your email network. You might think that you know who you are emailing, but it takes a couple of seconds to get it done. The data needed to draw the network is the to, from, and cc fields. No email text is being collected. It works with Gmail, Yahoo and exchange. The nice feature about the tool is that it also shows you the connections between your connections. If you are analyzing your work email network, you can see how changes in clients or project assignment impact your networks. Do you notice someone with whom you haven’t talked in ages. Maybe its time to reconnect.
 
If you prefer to have greater control over your data, you can also export your email data and analyze it. This tutorial explains how to extract your Outlook data and analyze it in Socilyzer. You can also obtain your Gmail data. Merely go to accounts, select Data and Personalization, and then Download your data. From the list, make sure you have only Mail selected and proceed to download the file. The resulting file can be loaded into a social network tool. Your options are Gephi, NodeXL, or Kumu. Gephi is an open source platform-independent tool. NodeXL is an addition for Excel sheets, and the basic version is free. Kumu is a web application for network analysis. The graph you see below was done with Kumu. 
 
I always found Gephi great for bigger networks. I still use it. When I have a large network to analyze in Python (or R), I visualize it using Gephi. NodeXL is excellent if you are working with social media, but I haven’t used it in some time as I migrated to R and Python.
 
Kumu and Gephi are two great free tools to work with which do not require programing expertise. Even for programmers, it can be nice to get a graph done in one click. The advantage of Kumu is that projects can easily be shared and are interactive. Like Gephi, standard network metrics are calculated. 

Do the first step to increase your network awareness.

Head over to Kumu, create a project and draw your social network. Simply click ‘SNA’ as the template, select the green plus button at the bottom of the page, and add names (‘elements’ in Kumu jargon). Just add names of people you interact with. Then make connections between you and all these people. Once this is done, create connections between your connections.

Voilá, you have your basic network. I found it easier to use the table view to add more information such as labels for your connections (colleague, project member, boss, friend etc.) and connections type (weak/strong). Have a look at this example map (with fake names). It was done in 10 minutes. If you are running into difficulties, reach out to me.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with the product Kumu. I just like social network tools that are accessible to all.