The Clayton Christensen Institute is a think tank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation in education, healthcare, and economic prosperity. Based on the theories of Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, the Institute aims to redefine the conversation for policymakers, community leaders, and entrepreneurs by promoting the power of disruptive innovation for fostering social change. 

Julia Freeland Fisher, Director of Education Research at the institute, recently released her book, Who You Know, which highlights the importance of social capital for gaining equitable access to work opportunities. 

We spoke with Freeland Fisher to get a deeper understanding of the role social capital plays in society and what needs to be done to design, develop, and spread access and opportunity to build networks among underserved communities.  

Q: Why is social capital important?

Freeland Fisher: Social capital is people’s access to, and ability to mobilize, human connections that might help them further their potential and their goals, especially as those goals emerge and inevitably shift over time. Put simply, networks have real value. Who you know shapes how you get by and get ahead.

We can’t talk about preparing people for the labor market without acknowledging how networks shape access to opportunity. Mark Granovetter at Stanford University estimates that 50 percent of all jobs come through personal connections. If we know that information about, and referrals to, jobs travels through networks, then we can’t just talk about increasing skills–we also need to be thinking about creating more and more equitable access to networks.

Stepping back, developing social capital is not just about labor market outcomes, it’s also about the state of our social fabric. We are living in a time when people are feeling more and more isolated. The longest-running study of adult development out of Harvard has looked at the fact that warm relationships are one of the key predictors of longevity, happiness, and health. But these important connections may be deteriorating. In fact, the former surgeon general has dubbed this a loneliness epidemic, and there are alarming statistics suggesting that millennials are disproportionately lonely and disconnected. So social capital is critical for any conversation about how we grow access to opportunity and at the same time it’s an asset that we as a society may be underinvesting in.

Q: Why study social capital in an educational context?

FF: I believe that our education system should be an engine for opportunity. The reality, however, is that the ingredients to accessing opportunities are not purely based on what you know, but also on whom you know. If we’re trying to create a set of educational institutions and programs that fuel upward mobility, we need to start thinking about how to deliberately integrate social components into learning environments. We need to be explicit about training students how to build, grow, and maintain social capital and creating more channels to accessing new networks.

Q: What will it take to integrate social capital, and connection, into the education space?

FF: The concept of institutional design is key. Institutions may have all sorts of social assets that are in place but they may not actually be designed to optimize for human connection. 

Mario Luis Small, a sociologist at Harvard, highlighted that institutions are fundamentally brokers of social capital. He has researched childcare centers in New York City, for example, and found what his 2009 book dubbed Unanticipated Gains. Mothers at childcare centers were starting to forge meaningful, trusting connections across lines of race and class because of some very simple and naturally intentional designs around how those childcare centers organized pickup and dropoff times and created chances for parents to interact. Parents were repeatedly coming together and, because of the thoughtful design behind it, began forging new connections with others they otherwise might not engage with.

In our formal education systems, there’s a huge opportunity to start designing institutions as purposeful brokers of social capital. Education institutions are awash with relationship potential. But we have designed so many of our institutions to insular: Schools in the K-12 system often function as custodial facilities that shut outsiders out and keep kids in. And in both K-12 and beyond, schools function as learning facilities where instruction gets delivered but connections may not get made. These institutional designs can lead to an atomized focus on individual learners versus developing a focus on social connection. Instead, we’re looking at the ways these institutions can start to design learning experiences to optimize for connection.

Q: How do you teach someone social capital in an authentic way?

FF: I’m not sure I would use the phrase “teach social capital”… social capital is an asset that is brokered and built. That said, you can teach a student about the value of “networking” and arm them with the interpersonal skills to build and mobilize networks. These skills are best learned in context. Rather than having the act of networking be a standalone module, for example, you can put learners in working relationships initially with one another to allow them a rich and deep cohort experience, providing an easier way to build an authentic working relationship. 

But we should be careful not to conflate teaching networking with actually opening the doors to relationships that are otherwise out of reach. With institutional partnerships, you can talk about and teach networking all you want. But you should design building social capital into your program and help to broker formal connections with and for students.

A very clear example of this working well is COOP, which is a program in San Francisco and New York that’s combating underemployment among low-income, first-generation college graduates. These graduates are degree holders but have not broken into knowledge-economy jobs. COOP has very deliberately built a tight-knit cohort experience where those graduates are forging connections with one another and near peer mentors.

They are also being completely explicit about the value of social capital. COOP’s founder Kalani Leifer will say to participants at the start of the program, “Try to build ten really solid relationships. One of those ten people will be the reason you get your first $50,000-a-year job. You don’t know which one, and by my math that means that each of those relationships is worth $5,000 to you.” It can sound crass, but that is making the unspoken spoken to a population of students who may not have inherited access to networks they can leverage for jobs.

Q: What’s the value of strong ties versus weak ties to developing social capital?

FF: Conventional wisdom in education sometimes says the stronger the tie the better. Sociologists describe “strong ties” as people with whom we interact more regularly. There’s an assumption that we forge and maintain higher levels of trust and reciprocity with those folks. We are more likely to look out for them and to lend them our emotional or financial support, and vice versa. An important dimension of thriving as a human is to have a set of strong ties on whom you can lean and depend. Particularly for vulnerable populations, ensuring access to a reliable web of support is a must-have.

What that conventional wisdom can sometimes ignore, however, is that our weak ties in fact contain unique value too. Unlike our strong ties, sociologists describe our weak ties as the people with whom we interact less frequently. They are more like acquaintances than close friends. But acquaintances can be profoundly valuable assets too. In fact, while studying how people found jobs, Mark Granovetter discovered that job seekers were more likely to find new opportunities and information through their more plentiful and diverse weaker-tie networks than their more dense and smaller strong-tie networks. He famously dubbed this “the strength of weak ties.”

Those weak ties could be an important asset that more programs could start brokering for students. And that’s exciting news when you think about how technology can help provide a competitive advantage to learners in developing more social capital. We hypothesize that when it comes to technology, we are unlikely to replace our strongest ties, but there’s an immense opportunity to diversify weak-tie connections in new, highly affordable ways. We’ve been hard at work tracking new tools and models that are using technology to help learners build new relationships that would otherwise be out of reach.

And it may go without saying, but there’s a huge upside to investing in diversifying networks in the longer run. We constantly hear about the looming uncertainty of the future of work. But the more diverse an array of connections learners can make and maintain, the more options our working population has to buffer against the risks of unknowns in the labor market.

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