SWG 07: Organization(al) Networks: Between Structure and Process



Leon A.G. Oerlemans, Tilburg University, The Netherlands
Julia Brennecke, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom
Francesca Pallotti, University of Greenwich, United Kingdom
Marco Tortoriello, Bocconi University Milan, Italy
The general aim of the new SWG 07 on “Organization(al) Networks: Between Structure and Process” is to enhance scholarly understanding of network advantages and disadvantages by developing theoretical and empirical insights on the effects of network structure and processes, and by showing the differential outcomes of different forms of interaction in network ties. This is a new perspective on networks that identifies a number of exciting theoretical and empirical developments in this research stream. It’s novel compared to the previous versions of the previous SWG 07 on “Organizational Network Research” (2016–2019), and it’s in many ways an extension to what has been done so far.
The new SWG 07 (2020–2023) will offer a platform for the further development of organizational network research to the many participants who have repeatedly participated in the previous SWG sub-themes over the last years, as well as to newcomers who have been joining the discussion each year.

Research on organizational networks has increased dramatically in the last fifteen years (e.g., Borgatti & Halgin, 2011). This is exemplified by two special issues of the Academy of Management Journal on organizational networks in the 2000s, two special issues of Organization Science on organizational networks in the 2010s, and about 55 papers on inter-and intra-organizational relations and networks in Organization Studies since the year 2000. Furthermore, several journals in the field published review studies on organizational networks and relationships. Relevant examples are Journal of Management (Provan et al., 2007; Phelps et al., 2012), Academy of Management Annals (Kilduff & Brass, 2010; Halevy et al., 2018), Research in the Sociology of Organizations (Borgatti et al., 2014), Industry and Innovation (Bergenholtz & Waldstrøm, 2011), International Journal of Management Reviews (Pittaway et al., 2004; Müller-Seitz, 2012) and Public Management Review (Lecy et al., 2014).  In a review piece on organization networks, Borgatti and Foster (2003) conclude that most network studies fall in one of four possible categories in a scheme consisting of two dimensions:

  1. The first dimension refers to a study’s explanatory goal, which can be either performance or homogeneity. Some studies focus on explaining variation in success (e.g. performance or reward) as a function of inter- or intra-organizational relationships. Other studies concentrate on the explanation of homogeneity in actor attitudes, beliefs and practices, also as a function of relationships.

  2. The second dimension refers to the explanatory mechanisms in use, which can be either structuralist or connectionist. Studies differ in how they treat ties and their functions. In the structuralist approach, the focus is on the structure or configuration of ties in the network. It is a structural, topological approach that tends to neglect the content of ties and focuses on the structural patterns of interconnection. In the connectionist approach, also called the connectionist or relational stream, the focus is on the processes taking shape in network ties. Inter- and intraorganizational relationships and networks are seen as conduits through which information and aid flow or through which coordination takes place (Borgatti & Halgin, 2011).

A combination of the two dimensions results in four types of network studies:

  • The first group is labelled ‘structural capital’ (structuralist and performance variation) and comprises studies that concentrate on the benefits to actors of either occupying central positions in the network (Powell et al., 1996) or having an ego-network with a certain structure (Burt, 1992).

  • The second group of studies (structuralist and homogeneity) seeks to explain common attitudes and practices in terms of similar structural network environments, usually indicated by centrality or structural equivalence (Galaskiewicz & Burt, 1991).

  • In the third group, an organization’s success is a function of the quality and quantity of resources controlled by the organization’s alters (Stuart, 2000). This category comprises of research in the stakeholder and resource dependence theoretical traditions.

  • The fourth group is a combination of the connectionist approach and social homogeneity and seeks to explain attitudes, culture, and practices through interaction (Krackhardt & Kilduff, 2002). The spread of an idea, practice or material object is modelled as a function of interpersonal or inter-organizational interaction via friendship or other durable channels. Ties are conceived of as conduits along which information and influence flow. Actors are mutually influencing each other in a process that creates increasing structural inter-dependencies within structural subgroups.

To date, the structuralist account dominates the debate (Gargiulo et al., 2009; Soda et al., 2018). It implies that the overall position of an actor in a network (intra- or inter-organizational) is an important determinant of its performance. There is a host of empirical studies supporting this claim at different levels of analysis. Some example are firms’ innovative performance (Ahuja, 2000), mental health situations of individuals (Provan & Milward, 1995), or knowledge circulation in regional clusters (Ter Wal & Boschma, 2009).
However, although historically much of the contributions in this research stream have focused on the structural characteristics of the network (e.g. network density, clustering, structural holes, etc.) or of the tie composing the network (e.g. strong vs. weak ties, boundary-spanning ties, etc.), a recent trend in network studies is challenging the adoption of an exclusive structural approach. According to several scholars, in fact, network and networking are more thoroughly understood as the process through which network advantages are achieved, and specific structural configurations form and evolve, rather than just their corresponding structural configurations (Grosser et al., 2019; Soda et al., 2018; Tasselli et al., 2015; Bensaou et al., 2014; Obstfeld et al., 2014; Goessling et al., 2007; Obstfeld, 2005).
With this SWG, we aim at expanding the theoretical domain in network research by considering, along with strictly structural patterns such as structural holes or open vs. closed networks, also the social behavior of networking. By that, we mean the specific process(es) through which social actors (e.g., individuals or organizations) determine their position in the network and act upon the opportunities offered by specific network positions.

To be clear: we do not mean to suggest that structural explanations do not matter, to the contrary, we believe that by explicitly including process-based explanations, we can reach a more thorough and complete understanding of what drives the formation and development of network structures and associated advantages. Consistent with what is argued by existing network scholarship, considering both purely structural and process-based approaches to network studies can still be declined in terms of network theories proper (i.e. using network constructs to predict different outcome variables) or theories of networks (i.e. understanding why networks are what they are and understanding what are their antecedents).

It’s apparent that our understanding of both, outcomes and antecedents of networks (Borgatti & Halgin, 2011), can be enhanced greatly by the joint consideration of structural and processes-based characteristics. Examples of such processes are resource and knowledge exchanges, trust building, peer influencing, tie formation, tie dissolution, and brokering.
Especially regarding the last topic, a number of studies (Grosser et al., 2019; Soda et al., 2018; Obstfeld et al., 2014) have been published that combine the notion of brokerage as a network structural position with the action of brokering as a process through which advantages are acquired. These studies show that because different processes take place (e.g. joining, mediating between, and separating) actors in the same structural position might end up reaping differential outcomes.

In other words: not just because two social actors occupy the same network structural position we can expect them to have access to exactly the same type of network benefits – also how they use their network should eventually determine, at least in part, the nature and amount of advantages they obtain from their structural position.


  • Ahuja, G. (2000): “Collaboration Networks, Structural Holes, and Innovation: A Longitudinal Study.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 45 (3), 425–455.
  • Bensaou, B.M., Galunic, C., & Jonczyk-Sédès, C. (2014): “Players and Purists: Networking Strategies and Agency of Service Professionals.” Organization Science, 25 (1), 29–56.
  • Bergenholtz, C., & Waldstrøm, C. (2011): “Inter-Organizational Network Studies – A Literature Review.” Industry and Innovation, 18 (6), 539–562.
  • Borgatti, S.P., Brass, D.J., & Halgin, D.S. (2014): “Social Network Research: Confusions, Criticisms, and Controversies.” In: D.J. Brass, G. Labianca, A. Mehra, D.S. Halgin & S.P. Borgatti (eds.): Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 40. Bradford: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 1–29.
  • Borgatti, S.P., & Foster, P.C. (2003): “The Network Paradigm in Organizational Research: A Review and Typology.” Journal of Management, 29 (6), 991–1013.
  • Borgatti, S.P., & Halgin, D.S. (2011): “On Network Theory.” Organization Science, 22 (5), 1168–1181.
  • Burt, R.S. (1992): Structural Holes. The Social Structure of Competition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Galaskiewicz, J., & Burt, R.S. (1991): “Interorganization Contagion in Corporate Philanthropy.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 36 (1), 88–105.
  • Gargiulo, M., Ertug, G., & Galunic, C. (2009): “The Two Faces of Control: Network Closure and Individual Performance among Knowledge Workers.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 54 (2), 299–333.
  • Goessling, T., Oerlemans, L.A.G., & Jansen, R. (eds.) (2007): Inside Networks. A Process View on Multi-organisational Partnerships, Alliances and Networks. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Grosser, T.J., Obstfeld, D., Labianca, G., & Borgatti, S.P. (2019): “Measuring Mediation and Separation Brokerage Orientations: A Further Step Toward Studying the Social Network Brokerage Process.” Academy of Management Discoveries, 5 (2).
  • Halevy, N., Halali, E., & Zlatev, J.J. (20XX): “Brokerage and Brokering: An Integrative Review and Organizing Framework for Third Party Influence.” Academy of Management Annals, 13 (1), 215–239.
  • Kilduff, M., & Brass, D.J. (2010): “Organizational Social Network Research: Core Ideas and Key Debates.” Academy of Management Annals, 4 (1), 317–357.
  • Krackhardt, D., & Kilduff, M. (2002): “Structure, culture and Simmelian ties in entre-preneurial firms.” Social Networks, 24 (3), 279–290.
  • Lecy, J.D., Mergel, I.A., & Schmitz, H.P. (2014): “Networks in Public Administration: Current scholarship in review.” Public Management Review, 16 (5), 643–665.
  • Müller-Seitz, G. (2012): “Leadership in Interorganizational Networks: A Literature Review and Suggestions for Future Research.” International Journal of Management Reviews, 14 (4), 428–443.
  • Obstfeld, D. (2005): “Social Networks, the Tertius Iungens Orientation, and Involvement in Innovation.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 50 (1), 100–130.
  • Obstfeld, D., Borgatti, S. P., & Davis, J. (2014): “Brokerage as a Process: Decoupling Third Party Action from Social Network Structure.” In: D.J. Brass, G. Labianca, A. Mehra, D.S. Halgin & S.P. Borgatti (eds.): Contemporary Perspectives on Organizational Social Networks. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol. 40. Bradford: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 135–159.
  • Phelps, C., Heidl, R., & Wadhwa, A. (2012): “Knowledge, Networks, and Knowledge Networks: A Review and Research Agenda.” Journal of Management, 38 (4), 1115–1166.
  • Pittaway, L., Robertson, M., Munir, K., Denyer, D., & Neely, A. (2004): “Networking and innovation: a systematic review of the evidence.” International Journal of Management Reviews, 5–6 (3–4), 137–168.
  • Powell, W.W., Koput, K.W., & Smith-Doerr, L. (1996): “Interorganizational collaboration and the locus of innovation: Networks of learning in biotechnology.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 41 (1), 116–145.
  • Provan, K.G., Fish, A., & Sydow, J. (2007): “Interorganizational Networks at the Network Level: A Review of the Empirical Literature on Whole Networks.” Journal of Management, 33 (3), 479–516.
  • Provan, K.G., & Milward, H.B. (1995): “A Preliminary Theory of Interorganizational Network Effectiveness: A Comparative Study of Four Community Mental Health Systems.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 40 (1), 1–33.
  • Soda, G., Tortoriello, M., & Iorio, A. (2018): “Harvesting Value from Brokerage: Individual Strategic Orientation, Structural Holes, and Performance.” Academy of Management Journal, 61 (3), 896–918.
  • Stuart, T.E. (2000): “Interorganizational alliances and the performance of firms: a study of growth and innovation rates in a high‐technology industry.” Strategic Management Journal, 21 (8), 791–811.
  • Tasselli, S., Kilduff, M., & Menges, J.I. (2015): “The Microfoundations of Organizational Social Networks: A Review and an Agenda for Future Research.” Journal of Management, 41 (5), 1361–1387.
  • Ter Wal, A.L.J., & Boschma, R.A. (2009): “Applying social network analysis in economic geography: framing some key analytic issues.” The Annals of Regional Science, 43 (3), 739–756.

About the Coordinators

Leon A.G. Oerlemans is Professor in Organizational Dynamics at the Department of Organization Studies, Tilburg University, The Netherlands. His research focuses on inter-organizational relationships and networks, and temporary inter-organizational project networks.

Julia Brennecke is Reader in Innovation Management at the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom. Her research focuses on networks in knowledge-intensive settings, with the aim of creating a better understanding of how and why network ties form, and exposing the consequences of network connections for innovation.

Francesca Pallotti is an Associate Professor in Economic Sociology at the University of Greenwich Business School, United Kingdom. Her research focuses on the antecedents and consequences of inter- and intra-organizational networks, and on network dynamics.

Marco Tortoriello is Professor of Strategy and Organizations in the Department of Management and Technology at Bocconi University Milan, Italy. His research focuses on mechanisms and returns to social capital as applied to knowledge-intensive industries and organizations.