Posted on Aug 1, 2013 in Weblog | 0 comments

Rotations are one of the most jarring and simultaneously stimulating things about medical school. Every two to four weeks, medical students and resident physicians switch different teams, different environments, with a whole new set of personalities and experiences. Will there be an angry leader for the next month? A competent but brash intern? Or a humorous, side-slapping team with warm personalities (like my internal medicine team above)?

Or how about a leader who grew up in poverty in India? Maybe a bicycle-riding medical student who knows where the most excellent clubs are? How about the head physician who has done surgical missions to Africa?

In order to continue giving excellent care for patients, these diverse people must quickly bond together through both work and sometimes even play.

In medical school, you make new best friends every two weeks.

In medical school, I had the opportunity to meet a large number of amazing people. My social network quickly expanded to include an extremely large number of “weak ties.”

Uzzi and Dunlap in the Harvard Business Review write about how two men centuries ago set out in colonial America to spread the word that the British were invading the Americas. Both Paul Revere and William Dawes set out on horseback. However, Revere is the one known in American history to have spread the word much faster. It turns out he had far more weak ties than William Dawes: he knew many more people spread out amongst different groups.

In the field of organizational behavior, weak ties in social networks are those in which you know multiple people who don’t really know one another (see Paul Revere, below, and note that he is linked to about four separate groups).

Contrast that to strong ties. People with strong ties know each other very closely and intimately, and can potentially move quickly together, but will share a lot more redundant information and may not have diverse, rich experiences (such as William Dawes, below). For a brief 2 to 4 weeks, medical students and residents and even attendings become part of a small, closer-knit group (like William Dawes’s group shown here) with relatively strong ties. They must move quickly to help diagnose & treat patients. After those 4 weeks are up, the relationships between the team members revert to weak ties, or may completely vanish.

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Those who end up having numerous weak ties with a wide range of experiences end up becoming information brokers: those who connect disparate groups of people. Information ends up flowing through them, and “brokers are especially powerful because they connect separate clusters [of people], thus stimulating collaboration and exploiting arbitrage among otherwise independent specialists.”

This is important, because having a network with access to these weak ties allows one increased access to:

  • private information, information not readily public on the Internet, say, such as inside opinion on the personalities and nuances of people of. The trouble, of course, is that this information might not be too reliable, as there are fewer ways to confirm the information you receive.
  • access to diverse skill sets. Strong ties tend to have more homogenous skill sets and experiences, like a mirror version of yourself. Weak ties allow you to think outside of the box and draw from different experiences. Uzzi et al writes, “While expertise has become more specialized during the past 15 years, organizational, product, and marketing issues have become more interdisciplinary, which means that individual success is tied to the ability to transcend natural skill limitations through others. Highly diverse network ties…help you develop more complete, creative, and unbiased views of issues.”
  • power. According to Uzzi et al, as organizations become less hierarchical, those who have informal ties amongst one another tend to have more influence as they are able to connect different streams of information.

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If these ties are important, how can one visualize these connections? A person’s existing social network — LinkedIn and Facebook — or even their Gmail inbox — can be used to build these network visuals. I’ll cover three of these tools in my next post with some of my observations.