Think back to a conversation you had months ago with someone you know well enough to trust, but with whom you havent spoken since. Chances are youll remember only vague outlines of the exchange. Call the person and raise the same subject again, though, and more likely than not, the two of you will find yourselves picking up where you left off, remembering the details of significance and expanding into new areas.
To Karen Stephenson, a maverick yet influential social network theorist, the association between trust and learning is an instrument of vast, if frequently untapped, organizational power. The act of reconnecting and talking with a trusted colleague generally triggers a resurgence of mutual memory, opening the gates to fresh learning and invention. This phenomenon, Professor Stephenson contends, is just one example of the direct cognitive connection between the amount of trust in an organization and its members ability to develop and deploy tacit knowledge together. Because networks of trust release so much cognitive capability, they can (and often do) have far more influence over the fortunes and failures of companies from day to day and year to year than the official hierarchy.
Professor Stephenson identifies three key roles in organisational networks:
- These people – “Connectors” as Malcolm Gladwell terms them – are the kind of person who becomes a gathering and sharing point for critical information
- Pulsetakers, says Professor Stephenson, carefully cultivate relationships that allow them to monitor the ongoing health and direction of the organization. Its not always easy to tell who the pulsetakers are. Even I, after 30 years of research, cant see them by staring at the diagrams, she says. You can only detect them through the mathematics by which she means the algorithmic analysis of survey data.A pulsetakers patterns of connection show a distinct mathematical pattern, with links that are relatively sparse, but frequently used and diverse. Every now and then someone gets colloquially recognized as the first to sense changes in the wind, and to intervene in subtle but powerful ways.
- Gatekeepers are information bottlenecks, controlling the flow of contact to a particular part of the organization, thus making themselves indispensable.
The article quotes Malcolm Gladwell:
My whole thesis is that certain people play critical networking roles, says Mr. Gladwell. Karen can actually go to a company and point them out. And yet her work is quite subversive in a certain way. Its hard to accept the idea that there are people who play critical roles who dont show up on the organization chart. Ive never heard anyone say, This person is a powerful networker, and deserves a raise. But Karen gives us a tool for measuring the contribution of these social types.
In any culture, says Karen Stephenson, there are at least six core layers of knowledge, each with its own informal network of people exchanging conversation. Everybody moves in all the networks, but different people play different roles in each; a hub in one may be a gatekeeper in another. The questions listed here are not the precise questions used in surveys. These vary on the basis of the needs of each workplace and other research considerations (Dont try this at home, says Professor Stephenson), but they show the basic building blocks of an organizations cultural makeup.
Six Varieties of Knowledge Networks
1. The Work Network. (With whom do you exchange information as part of your daily work routines?) The everyday contacts of routinized operations represent the habitual, mundane resting pulse of a culture. The functions and dysfunctions; the favors and flaws always become evident here, says Professor Stephenson.
2. The Social Network. (With whom do you check in, inside and outside the office, to find out what is going on?) This is important primarily as an indicator of the trust within a culture. Healthy organizations are those whose numbers fall within a normative range, with enough social tensile strength to withstand stress and uncertainty, but not so much that they are overdemanding of peoples personal time and invested social capital.
3. The Innovation Network. (With whom do you collaborate or kick around new ideas?) There is a guilelessness and childlike wonderment to conversations conducted in this network, as people talk openly about their perceptions, ideas, and experiments. For instance, Why do we use four separate assembly lines where three would do? Or, Hey, lets try it and see what happens! Key people in this network take a dim view of tradition and may clash with the keepers of corporate lore and expertise, dismissing them as relics.
4. The Expert Knowledge Network. (To whom do you turn for expertise or advice?) Organizations have core networks whose key members hold the critical and established, yet tacit, knowledge of the enterprise. Like the Coca-Cola formula, this kind of knowledge is frequently kept secret. Key people in this network are often threatened by innovation; theyre likely to clash with innovators and think of them as undisciplined.
5. The Career Guidance or Strategic Network. (Whom do you go to for advice about the future?) If people tend to rely on others in the same company for mentoring and career guidance, then that in itself indicates a high level of trust. This network often directly influences corporate strategy; decisions about careers and strategic moves, after all, are both focused on the future.
6. The Learning Network. (Whom do you work with to improve existing processes or methods?) Key people in this network may end up as bridges between hubs in the expert and innovation networks, translating between the old guard and the new. Since most people are afraid of genuine change, this network tends to lie dormant until the change awakens a renewed sense of trust. It takes a tough kind of love, says Professor Stephenson, to entrust people to tell you what they know about your established habits, rules, and practices.