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InterviewsOn Campus

Bocconi Hires Influential Sociologist Ronald Burt: A Welcome Interview

Ronald Burt
Reading time: 9 minutes

This semester, the Department of Management and Technology at Bocconi are delighted to welcome American sociologist, Prof. Ronald Stuart Burt to their faculty. Prof. Ronald Burt is a highly influential academic in the field of social networks and he focuses on the role they play in the business world. Our Isha Induchudan and Xueqiao Li, with the contribution of Cecilia Gadina, had a chance to interview him and understand how to better implement the principles of effective networking in our lives as students and graduates entering the workforce.

Having taught both in the States and Europe, what would you say are the key differences, if any, in the academic environment between the two regions? 

First, some things that are similar, and then we will get to the things that are different. If you can get to a good school like Bocconi, the “Smart” is just oppressive here. There are so many smart college students that are discovering things. When a good mind encounters something that it has not seen before, it just comes alive with all these ideas. Whether you go to Harvard or Columbia or Princeton or Chicago or Stanford, that’s everywhere. In terms of differences, what strikes me about Europe is people are familiar with diversity because it is right next door. In the US you can go for months without meeting someone who has a passport and they take the ease of living in the West for granted. They just do not know, and that is something Europeans are much more conscious of.  

Ronald Burt Records

So, when you say that Americans tend to overlook differences, is this in an exclusively domestic context or in groups with international students?  

If you go to the U.S. many people live in a world that’s so homogeneously American. When we encounter someone, we treat them as though they are exactly like us, and in that, something is lost. In Europe I think people are more accustomed to meeting a person right across the border who speaks a different language and has different beliefs. In the US, you can find people like that, but they aren’t the majority. Anyway, I thought it was a really interesting thing about how to get value out of diversity. 

A lot of your research is focused on being open to diversity and new experiences. Linking that to the idea of “sticky information”, do you think that when groups are more homogeneous, you’re limiting openness? And perhaps the openness Europeans have towards diversity helps with transmission of information and bridging gaps in understanding?  

Exactly right, and the concept of sticky information is very straightforward. Imagine a group that likes to hang out together and they start making up jargon words to make things interesting. This is the music we like today and if you like yesterday’s music, you are passé and someone makes a joke about you. The more they do that, the more you have to be a member of the group to really understand. That ‘sticky information’ you can experience is information that never moves. When I was in Chicago, people didn’t like to commute for more than 30-40 minutes to just the Metropolitan area. While this happens in some more secluded part of Europe too, travelling for an hour takes you and your set of information to a different country. 

I realize that my question was a bit too specific in relation to social networks and not many students would be familiar with our work on the topic. Could you just elucidate what a social network is and what your work focuses on?  

Turns out I can. There are two key elements to the human experience. One element is the physical body and what is inside of it. The second element is the social environment in which we live in. A person behaves one way or another based on the kind of people they are surrounded by. Network analysis is all about getting value out of the people surrounding you.  

How do you make yourself more valuable? The world exists as loosely connected clusters. There is a little set of friends over here and one of them has a friend in this other cluster, and so on. We’re forever inside a group. This sets up two ways that people create value.  

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One way is to be the sharpest of the pack, focusing on upward mobility, and the other is to sit on the edge of these clusters connecting over to others, these are the ‘network brokers’. What they do is take the sticky information from one cluster and translate it into something useful in another cluster. This arbitrage is the substance of leadership and is the substance of who ends up coming up with creative ideas and ends up being promoted quickly up to the top of an organization.  

So, my work is about how that happens. How is it that certain people because of where they are located in the social structure, have this competitive advantage? And it turns out to be about 50% who do well and who do badly. Most people don’t know about 50% of what is going to define their career. Which is why in the US all this stuff about social networks and how they work has taken over by storm. How you are connected defines who you are. If you are connected to a bunch of people just like you, you will get dumber with time. If you are connected with people who are different, you have to recalibrate who you are to engage them. That keeps you alive.  

According to you, what are some of the qualities that are lacking in young managers these days. And would you say that the range in which these qualities are lacking differ between young leaders in Europe, US and possibly Asia too? 

I have done research in China, Japan, Europe, Western Europe, Germany, Netherlands, France, England and then a lot in the US. Cultural differences are swamped by age and industry. So, I am sure you could find some differences, but they are minor compared to just being young and entering the workforce. Industry matters tremendously because the older industries are intolerant of young people showing initiative. They want a stereotype that fits in a cog.  

These things happen as people mature across the US, Europe, but we do not have as good data on Asia. A young person comes into a firm. They are uncertain, looking around trying to figure out what they should look like in order to do a good job. The more you have been hired as part of a pack, the more you are being held accountable to compete with other people. You are immediately compared to all the other MBA graduates. They start to become a herd.

Imagine that in that herd there are some people who are a little bit different. For example, they might be an East Asian graduate in the US who does not speak English quite as clearly as domestic graduates. They would be very happy to be able to speak to a colleague who is from the same county as them and they start a little friendship. They prefer interacting with people like themselves.

When IBM brought me in to look at their diversity program, what I found was that Asians, in particular, the Japanese, are brought in but then they never make it to management, despite having the technical skills. Was there a bias or is there something else? What turned out to be the case is that the Japanese would not speak English as well as the Americans, French or the English. So, they would form little groups where they could feel comfortable.

Entering the workforce, they were afraid just like everybody and looking for a safe place. But as the time they spent in IBM went up, the difference between being in that group and being outside got bigger and bigger. To solve this, IBM introduced a mentor who would act as a bridge between the Japanese group and the English-speaking majority to coach the Japanese to interact with the others more frequently. The chief failure of young people is looking to hang out with people like you.  

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You mentioned something about when graduates come out of university, companies are looking for someone who fits into a cog. Us Bocconi students are enrolled in programs that are structured in a way that demands proficiency within multiple different fields. We are expected to graduate as well-rounded individuals, not to just fit into some corporate cog. So, how do you think that would translate for us coming into the job market? 

There was recently a study done on graduates from the Business School at Chicago and what they were particularly interested in investment banking. What they did was contrast two groups. One group were the investment bankers who met all the course requirements: management, accounting, some humanities, they were in the investment banking club, hung out with investment banking students, went to the student parties, etc. The other group had some banking prerequisites but spent most of their time in other courses. Who do you think got the highest bonus? The ones who were focused within investment banking typically got low bonuses, often did not get hired, and had one job offer – take it or leave it. The ones who got the high bonuses, who got the multiple offers were the people who were diversified.  

When companies hire an investment banker, they are hiring someone to get the business in. You need to have the ability to think independently and creatively to appeal to somebody you do not know to sell your bank as the place to do a deal. You have got to know what are the different lenses through which you can see it. Because this person might be coming from a Bavarian vs Swiss view, so you display the good qualities of the bank slightly differently depending on that, which requires that you are not this monochrome person.

If you are focused on the investment banking path and are taking the other courses but never really engaging with them, you are going to be down here, up there. It’s all about finding that nice middle of the usual things – not too close to the centre of the circle, but not falling off the edge either – and the ability to put an angle on them that you have probably not seen before. That is the biggest advantage. 

Besides someone who fits the profile of a job description to the T, you said that companies are less inclined to hire people who are too far off the edge. What do you mean by that? Do you think start-ups would prefer to employ someone ‘edgier’ in comparison to long-established companies? 

What I mean by someone who is too far off the edge are students are drawn to a certain lifestyle that strays away from their academic requirements, while this could signify greater risk-taking, a person of this profile would be the opposite of who a start-up would like to hire.  

Let me make a friendly edit to your statement of what I said earlier. When companies send their recruiting team to campus, they typically have not put their best and brightest on that team, who are needed at work back home. The pleasant, charming people they put on the recruiting team typically pick out candidates like themselves. And as a result, big firms end up hiring quite a generic, albeit smart, bunch of recruits.

The people who are unusual, highly specialised or diverse in one way are drawn to start-ups. The reason for this being that when you are in a startup you learn a lot and are paid higher when successful. You have also got to pay a lot more attention to what people are saying and come up with the strategy in the midst of all those voices. Studies have shown that individuals who are able to engage in this sort of outdoor education are the ones who show greater productivity when hired into a big firm. 

You majored in Pre-med as an undergrad, then switched to psychology for your masters, got a Ph.D. degree in sociology, and then you ventured into the consulting world. So, I’m wondering, how have your career transitions influenced the way you observe problems? 

I could say that my interests began in wanting to study the ailments of the physical body only to realise that these were just symptoms of graver mental, and societal causes. However, that would not be the full story. I think people like to make a rational story about how they go about what they are doing, and I do not trust them. Most careers are accidental with the exception of doctors, who were driven down that path by a father or a mother that was a doctor.

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Most people are accidents, and I did not set out to be so. In fact, as a pre-med, I took one sociology course and it was so bad that I went to the Dean in protest “Why do we have to take these courses, these are just brain dead!”. Later in college I met somebody who was a really smart sociologist. He opened up a whole new world and I went down that path and it was not figured out; it was an accident. 

People who are at the edge of a social world understand that you never know where the project is. But the more you are exposed to disturbances, the higher the odds of a productive accident, bumping into something that turns out to be productive.

It is one of the arguments for going to as good a college as you can because you just do not know where you are going to end up. But the more you are surrounded by smart people, the more likely you will bump into something. You will meet people who stimulate you and you will pick some course of action where you will be happy.  

What advice would you give off-campus students who may feel as though they do not have as many chances to network with as many people, and bump into ‘productive accidents’ from home? 

That is a really good question because I think it’s the challenge of our time. When you are working with teams of people who are very different from you, you are called to exercise the skill of communicating with someone who’s different because it is natural to seek out people like yourself. To add to that it is so difficult to communicate when you cannot see people.  

In this case, education would be the key. Off-campus students should be open to learning that goes beyond what is taught in class. What I can say is that the primary virtue of education is exposure to diversity, the ability to communicate across those diverse lines. As people get much older, they have an issue of changing careers or changing something that is very close to you, like a divorce or getting married. 

There are two ways people do that change. One way is staying locked in with a set of people just like themselves. Then there is the path of a person who knows they want to get out of a particular thing, so they live at the edge of the social world. And what they do then is try things out. Even from home, you are not closed off to experiential knowledge and essentially you are living on the edge of a social world so it is easier to try out something new and figure out what works for you.


Credits for the top image: Jeff Sciortino – From Chicago Booth Review website

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3rd year BSc Economic and Social Sciences.
I write about politics, society, psychology and anything in between.

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