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It's Who You Know

An interesting book is Social Capital; Key Ideas by John Field (ISBN-10: 0415433037), Director of the Division of Academic Innovation and Continuing Education at the University of Stirling. Social Capital is a term which has been popularised by the American political scientist Robert D. Putnam, who defined it as:

features of social organisation, such as trust, norms and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions

Social Capital Explained

What does this mean and why are you telling us this I hear you say ? It came up in conversation the other night with a young writer Eleanor Ball who was discussing all the aspects of what it is to realise as a writer, including financing. Inevitably the discussion bumped against the old brigand is it ‘not what you know that counts, but who you know’…?

It so happens that I have been reading through a book which deals explicitly with these matters, it comes highly recommended. A particularly pertinent and lucid section from it is worth quoting:

Modern organisations are governed by rules. There are accepted procedures for making or appealing decisions, and responsibilities are usually defined clearly in terms of a position rather than a person. But when they want to make something happen, many people will ignore these formal procedures and responsibilities, and set off to talk to someone they know.

Important decisions almost always involve a degree of uncertainty and risk: if someone is looking for a new job or planning to appoint someone to a job, if they are looking for someone to service their car or mend the washing machine, if they are thinking of moving home or introducing a new way of organising the office, or if they want to find the best school or hospital, using the formal procedures is no guarantee of success.

To make things happen, people often prefer to bypass the formal system and talk to people they know. Calling on trusted friends, family or acquaintances is much less stressful than dealing with bureaucracies, and it usually seems to work faster and often produces a better outcome. Peoples networks really do count.

As the cliche has it, it is not what you know that counts, but who you know. More accurately, it is of course both what and who you know that comes in handy. And just knowing people isn’t enough if they don’t feel obliged to help you. If people are going to help one another, they need to feel good about it, which means that they need to feel they have something in common with each other. If they do share values, they are much more likely to cooperate to achieve mutual goals.

Formal systems – combining impersonal order and hierarchical rules – are often an attempt to control the excesses of mutual informal cooperation, which can lend to forms of indirect discrimination against others who do not belong in the charmed circle.

Some networks like the ‘old boys networks’ that are said to dominate parts of the British Civil Service and business leadership or the family based Chaebol business networks of Korea, cooperate with the aim of keeping out those who do not wear the old school tie or come from the same kinship grouping.

George Bernard Shaw, in a preface to his play The Doctor’s Dilemma, famously said that all professions are a conspiracy against the public. Social relationships can sometimes serve to exclude and deny as well as include and enable. People’s networks should be seen, then, as part of the wider set of relationships and norms that allow people to pursue their goals and also serve to bind society together.

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