Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Introducing Valdis Krebs

Last week I blogged about the tensions inherent in the shift from a world characterized by one-to-many relationships to a world characterized by many-to-many relationships. This week I want to continue this thread by talking about changes in the nature of efficiency and power that this shift poses. It is these changes that are driving the social tensions discussed last week. In doing so, I want to introduce the work of social network theorist Valdis Krebs who has done some very influential work on the nature of power in social networks. 

From my earliest childhood memories, I remember sitting at my grandparents breakfast table in the early 1970s and watching my grandfather read the morning newspaper The Tyler Morning Telegraph. This, together with the CBS News at 5:30pm, was the primary way that our family received the news each day. In terms of communication paradigms, this is about as close to the one-to-many form as you can get.

Relative Cost / Efficiency in One-to-Many News Dissemination (Circa 1971)
This way of receiving the news each day was near universal at the time. The hierarchical relationships in the one-to-many model were highly efficient and very low cost. The daily newspaper was less than .25 cents and CBS, ABC, and NBC were basically free if you attached an aluminum antenna to your roof. Communications between others at the bottom of the hierarchy, unless they lived next door, was just the opposite - they were incredibly inefficient and very costly. If we wanted to talk to my Aunt and Uncle in Dallas, about 2 hours away, it took either a stamp and a week or a phone call that would cost much more than .25 cents / minute.

Today, my wife and I both sit at the breakfast table with laptops and with the TV on. By the time we have finished breakfast, we both typically will have responded to a dozen or more email messages and will have read the news from dozens of Web sites or Twitter feeds. When thinking about the costs of the way we consume today's news, our DirectTV subscription at $150/month has replaced what used to be free. But reading email and browsing the Web costs us practically nothing! The nature of the collaborations in the many-to-many world has reversed the efficiencies and costs inherent in the way we consume information and collaborate with others. Today, it tends to be much more inefficient and much more expensive to communicate in a centralized fashion. Many-to-many communications and collaborations are just the opposite.

The relationship between efficiency and cost correlates with the nature of power in both one-to-many and many-to-many networks. This is where the work of Krebs and orgnet is authoritative. 

Valdis Krebs, Power of Networks
Compare the two social networks in the above image: on the left is a typical one-to-many network and on the right is a many-to-many network. Krebs has mapped out the relative power inherent in the relationships of all participants in these networks. In the one-to-many network, the heavy centralization, high efficiency, and low costs of centralized communications results in a power score of 1.0 at the top of the hierarchy and the low efficiency and high cost of communications at the bottom results in a power score of .286 for each participant. Now, compare these power scores to those for the participants in the many-to-many relationship. The significant collaborations and free flow of information, made possible because of the low cost and efficiency of many-to-many collaborations, has diluted the power of participants at the top and have resulted in an even sharing of power between all participants.

With this in mind, let's go back to the examples I highlighted last week:

It is this shift that has disrupted traditional notions of power and authority, whether we are talking about the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, the faculty rebellion against publishing giant Elsevier, or the recent backlash against the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

What we see in each of these examples is the power of individuals coming together, through communications and collaborations made possible by the Internet and mobile technologies, to shake up established hierarchies of power and destroy the business models of the past. I have one question for those of us in higher education: what makes us think that we're immune from these forces? And, just for fun, if you happen to be a CIO running a central IT organization think about what these changes pose for your future.


  1. Thanks for linking to our thinking!

    Here is another example of what happens when the spokes connect in a hub-and-spoke network...

    Connectivity changes context!


  2. Thanks, Valdis, I am following you on twitter as well.