On highly connected but dysfunctional academics (or The downsides of networking)

By Joern Fischer

As researchers, we live in a highly connected world. Many colleagues work on things that are related somehow to what we do. Conventional wisdom has it that we ought to keep up with Table of Contents, with conferences, and with funding calls, so that we know what’s going on elsewhere. Moreover, early career researchers are told frequently about the importance of “networking”. You’ve got to know who-is-who and who-does-what to effectively position yourself for a research career. To be part of the next “big thing”, you have to be known to those people centrally involved in that “big thing” (e.g. a new funding call, or some other kind of research collaboration).

Through this kind of logic, powerful research networks have formed around many issues. So, for example, there are scholars interested in “resilience stuff”, others interested in “pollination stuff”, others interested in “Amazon stuff”, and yet others interested in “novel ecosystems stuff”. These people tend to know about one another, and for a junior researcher it can be quite important to identify with one of these networks and somehow “get into it”. Once you’re in, you’re well networked, and you’re likely to be swept along by the “next big thing” when it comes around. Or in other words, your career benefits, because through such networks you build a certain kind of resilience into your personal career strategy.

So far, this is fairly conventional logic, and is probably largely “true”, or sensible enough anyway.

But I would argue that there are significant downsides to all this. My argument is that such networks encourage innovation to a point, but then actually stifle innovation; via a mechanism of too much connectedness in a network leading to reduced resilience and poor ability to innovate. This logic is consistent with the adaptive cycle, put forward by resilience scholars (most famously, but not only, by Buzz Holling).

My argument goes like this. As you are more and more networked as an individual scholar, you are able to share ideas with colleagues who have similar interests. You can learn from these colleagues, and that, in turn, will foster innovation. This is conventional wisdom and is consistent with why we ought to go to conferences, read other people’s work, and so on. But eventually, high connectedness can stifle innovation via two mechanisms. The first of these is “group think”. I have heard people outside the “resilience” group, for example, criticize that group for such group think, and I have heard the same kind of criticism of the “pollination” group. Basically, these are large groups of people, where individuals influence one another through personal contact or reading one another’s work, and so if one idea starts to be “sexy”, very soon many others will follow that idea. Topics that take off as a result of this have a lot of traction, because they can draw on large peer communities interested in the same thing. That is, there are major institutional rewards of “imitating” other people’s ideas like this (high citation rates, publications in big journals, etc). But the moments of true innovation are often quite scarce. Arguably, at any given point in time, many people in big networks “go with the flow”, while very few provide truly interesting, new ideas (I’m not implying it’s always the same few people!).

The second mechanism, which further intensifies this dampening of innovation, is known to many of us who are highly connected: a flood of small, often trivial tasks, to maintain one’s status in a given network. This includes floods of emails, grants one is asked to participate in but doesn’t really have time for, frequent travel, and so on. Many of these activities are not good for innovation, but they are the result of responsibilities towards one’s networks. Ultimately, highly networked individuals are extremely busy “serving” their networks. While that’s fine, in principle, it takes away a lot of time, space and freedom for truly creative thought. Where would a highly networked individual therefore have the best ideas? Somewhere in the field, on her own? Or at a conference, surrounded by many individuals? For myself, I know it’s when I’m left alone to reflect, not when I frantically try to keep up with emails, tables of contents, or grant proposals.

So bottom line for me: being networked is good – to a point. Once you feel you are “networked enough”, you’ll have certain duties towards your peers (that’s fine), but it’s equally important to allow oneself to also “disconnect” from such networks, sporadically or even regularly. True innovation, most likely, will come from impulses from outside the network, including quiet reflection away from the busy existence of everyday life.

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19 thoughts on “On highly connected but dysfunctional academics (or The downsides of networking)

  1. Joern, you’re sounding more like a resilience prophet every day. 🙂 Could it be you’re breaking out of a conservation phase and going into release? (If so, who knows what happens next.)

    • Hi David, tragic, isn’t it. Mind you, this one is based on personal experience and intense frustration with being essentially bogged in “stuff”. To take this one step further — real “release” is extremely difficult once you’re in K-phase! You shock not only yourself, but take “the system” around you with you as you re-organise (i.e. personal and professional responsibilities). Anyway, still worth pondering … 🙂
      Hope all is well in good old Canberra! — J.

      • Interesting observation Joern – just found your blogg. Your statement “You shock not only yourself, but take “the system” around you with you as you re-organise” touches on a kind of all or nothing phenomena – you are in the loop or out of it. Not true for all people and all situation of course but there is a pathology here I would argue. My thesis is that it’s hard to be 50% in the loop/networking and retain 50% of the benefits. There are feedbacks/preferential attachments, or whatever, that – if you don’t respond to will wither and die. In Adaptive Cycle terminology it could be expressed as that you can only climb upwards in the front loop, not back down, or risk tripping a “release” with unknown consequenses. If true – what can be done about it?

      • Hi Magnus, yes indeed, that’s a very true observation! Sweden makes it relatively easier for individuals to combine tasks (e.g. work and family), but still, I’m sure the pressures to do all-or-nothing are (increasingly?) high there, too. Expressing this as feedbacks, or a pathology, is precisely right, I think.

  2. A thought provoking post Joern, and I broadly agree – it’s possible to get caught up in all sorts activities (in which I’d include reviewing and editorial duties) that take us away from the creative, ideas side of our role as scientists. In part this is driven by the institutions at which we work: have you ever known a head of department say “Don’t apply for that large grant, it’s reducing your thinking time”?!

    But, more than most jobs, we have some control over this and can make our own choices, up to a point. So perhaps what we need is some clear way in which to monitor ourselves? One metric might be the number of first-author papers we publish, in which the ideas and writing clearly stemmed from our own thinking. Is there an ideal ratio of first:not-first authorship? 50:50? 20:80?

    • Hi Jeff, I suspect what is “too much” will be different for everyone. I tend to try define in my head what is my “core business”, and then make sure I devote enough time to that. Often, “non-core business” threatens to take over. So, for example, co-authoring my PhD students’ papers might be “core business” to me, even if it’s not first-authored papers.

  3. The first problem you identified (intra-group parochialism or conformity I would call it) exhibits a striking resemblance with the ideas of Thomas Kuhn–you get stuck within a paradigm shared by your network and it is not easy to break out from that. I think it is utterly important to keep that always in mind… With regard to the latter problem, I am still a PhD student, so networking does not consume much of my time resources–but when I look around, e.g., at my supervisor, I cannot but agree with your point. In the end, as always in life, it is a question of the right balance–too bad that is so difficult to find…

  4. Thought provoking, thanks Joern! Drawing further on the adaptive cycle metaphor, when is it time for a release, and how can our institutions support that? If you know you’re in K phase (as it seems you are describing the ‘highly networked individual’) what does release actually look like? Is it possible to build this into our institutional structures, to allow successful professors to drop their commitments and let go to be creative when they need it, rather than every 7 years for a sabbatical (if that could even be counted as a release…)? Ultimately that release should lead to a reorganisation of ideas, some of them novel and others fragments of the rich memory that has been developed during your ‘K’ phase. The key point is to find the time and space to reorganise after a collapse, and who knows, in that process novel ideas may even emerge (not necessarily from outside your network, but from within). On a network level, it seems we wouldn’t want all individuals to crash at once….

    • Hi Jamila, I actually think sabbaticals are probably one of the best tools for this … as long as people use them to truly “get out” for a bit. They are a very good opportunity to engage with other people, and thus get some fresh ideas! The network level comment is true, but I guess mostly people wouldn’t all collapse at the same time … even if they are all stressed out and have burn-out, the symptoms should peak at different times 🙂

  5. Ohh, I have already discovered that being the introvert may profit me through reasonable low number of network members I cooperate with 😉

  6. Hi Joern, Great to read this and to see the dialogue that it has inspired. The social network literature suggests that being highly connected is wasteful, as well as risking groupthink. For instance I always assumed that the rationale of interdisciplinary departments of the type we experienced at Fenner, with a Noah’s Ark style of recruitment (one faculty appointment of each relevant discipline), was to create opportunities for them to collaborate. Of course, this isn’t what happens – they collaborate on student committees, but otherwise seek scholarly contacts outside the department. It was through mapping such collaboration networks that I understood: being oriented outward brings the most novel resources (ideas, funding opportunities, etc.). Being highly connected inside would have transmitted mostly redundant resources. This is akin to Granovetter’s (1973) “The Strength of Weak Ties”, where the most tenuous, novel connections in a job seeker’s network brought the most productive opportunities (those their peers didn’t know about and weren’t also mining). So there is a curve of optimal connectivity – very low is obviously bad, but very high is too. Having just had another baby I have found it somewhat liberating to be forced to limit my connectedness, and perhaps this isn’t all bad – I may be able to invest more in those that matter.
    Cheers, Kate.
    Read more on weak ties in interdisciplinary research:
    http://jrp.icaap.org/index.php/jrp/article/view/163/167
    http://www.environmentsjournal.ca/index.php/ejis/article/view/14499

    • Thanks Kate! Excellent comment (because it’s based on actual expertise rather than my blabla), and seems quite relevant to those with an interest in resilience who have commented on this post already! — J.

  7. This is the first time I’ve seen it argued that the seemingly low amount of coordination within-institution reflects a good resiliency approach. For myself, I have to say that I found it to be a source of lack of resilience–or rather, having *so* many outwards connections and very few within-institution connections was not as rewarding to me as having better within-institution connections.

    Indeed, thinking about how faculty actually interact (at least in my experience), there is a large degree of resemblance to “weak-tie” networks; I had a couple of close friends among faculty but saw them socially only occasionally. I saw those outside my department only slightly more frequently. I was disappointed because I saw my interdisciplinary position as an opportunity to be engaged in local (on-campus) network connectivity between disciplines, and felt profoundly the lack of ability to connect more deeply with the colleagues around me. One of my top graduate students left in part because of the on-campus intellectual isolation.

    Of course, with all things it is a matter of degree.Still, Granovetter’s argument (as I understand it) isn’t that a system of all weak ties is the most resilient, and certainly all of us do well with a “home” or base community to find rest and release in. I am also an extrovert who prefers to think alongside other people, face to face, and found academia to be incredibly isolating. And there is also the element of trust- and community-building from shared work and face-to-face contact that is important.

    I may be an outlier, but I found the fact that I had more collaborative ties outside my organization than within to be a constant source of disappointment. I also would be surprised if the universities I’ve known had this at all intentionally.

    In any case, I tend to think of resiliency as best being modular — a group with strong ties, connected to many other groups through weak ties (probably through a small amount of node-type folks; I would probably be one of those folks).. That is my read of, for example, He and Deem (He, Jiankui, and Michael W. Deem. “Structure and Response in the World Trade Network.” arxiv.arXiv:1010.0410 (2010).)

    I suppose the short way to say all this (hah!) is that my experience of academia was one dominated by ties that in many ways would be categorized as “weak” — and having a network filled with weak ties and (professionally) relatively few strong ones locally was very aggravating and unfulfilling.

    • Thanks for your perspective, with which I can easily relate. I do not necessarily think that the outward-looking choices are conscious (in fact, I think a lot of outward connections maintain trusted collaborators from other places in a peripatetic academic career, or reflect ego or a sense of local competition). I think it is self-organization of a kind, as academics take the path that optimizes effort and esteem. On balance, it is probably good for the institution and its students from a resource perspective: collaborating on student committees brings internal collegiality and consistent messaging about norms, and those students get the benefit of the wider outside network, too.

      I think that what is (arguably) good for the institution isn’t always good for (all) its people. The pattern I describe is more characteristic of the tenured faculty or lab-leaders at the schools I studied. At one, for instance, it was largely the younger (more tenuously employed) post-docs or visiting fellows who collaborated internally – this was what many had been mentored to do as graduate students in the same department. The face-time you describe was important for making those interdisciplinary links work. That practice may not, however, be what gets them the opportunity to be a faculty member, if it isn’t fitting them firmly into one of the disciplines by which those departments are often populated.

      Whether an interdisciplinary institution should encourage such duality is a good question. It could certainly be seen as a failure. I certainly saw it thus once. From the comfort of a tenure-track position, after a year or two of feeling isolated, I see its inevitability and its value. Recognizing the forces at play make it easy for me to understand the lack of internal collaboration at my new interdisciplinary academic home – with only six professors our wider collaborative networks are key to our viability.

      • Interesting. I don’t really believe in the “inevitability” of any system, though I readily accept the probability of many of them 🙂

        I think there are interesting selectional effects at work, too, though–for instance, those people with strong needs/desires/histories of locally-focused collaboration not moving on within the academy (by choice or administrative adverse selection–tenure denial, e.g.). I also think, for those institutions that have the internal capacity for internal collaboration (i.e. > or even >> 6 professors) there are many missed chances for local network formation, and indeed I would argue that many “best practices” are missed out on (see synthesis from US National Academies of Science here: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11153). I think the current system promotes adaptation to its current limits and constraints, but I would argue that a “better” confirguration would also allow and support higher internal connections, especially where such connections are available but underutilized.

        My previous institution was relatively small (at least, the campus where I was located was). I constantly felt that there was a lack of space to learn more about what my colleagues did and how they thought, which would foster better interdisiplinary understanding (including within their own long-distance weak-ties networks). Two colleagues said one of their most useful experiences was teaching a course together, where they (a political scientist and a marine biologist) had to engage with the literature, ideas, and assumptions each one drew on. Indeed, now that I think about it, it seems like far-flung collaborative networks in more cases that I’m familiar with *increase* groupthink, because they colleagues that are kept connected are often those coming from similar backgrounds and assumptions. This is not inevitable by any means and I think there are also plenty of experiences like your own, but my experience is that extended networks of collaborators seemed to foster more (disciplinary) insularity than not, especially insofar as they promoted division of labor — “you think about the social stuff and I’ll think about the ecological stuff” — more often than not. Something like “strong tie” interactions, in my experience, forced far more internal contemplation of disciplinary assumptions, and thus rousted people from groupthink, whereas their extended network were often self-selected similar folks. Boundary-busting of the type discussed by, for example, Lele and Norgaard, was simply not part of what I saw in academic weak tie networks… (http://agroecopeople.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/barriers-to-interdisciplinarity-cultivating-fluidity/)

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