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On Trust And Culture
by Dr. Karen Otazo

Featured in the magazine "Strategy and Business"

In the 21st Century, the old bromide is more true than ever: It’s not what you know; it’s who you know and who knows you.

In large part, we can thank the Internet for that these days. Despite its vast size and complexity, the Internet has turned out to be a profoundly personal phenomenon. People around the globe are forming networks based on every conceivable common interest, from the serious and practical to the outright silly. In 2005, the 80-million member networking site MySpace got more page views than Google. And the movement is only continuing to grow.

It was only forty years ago that Dr. Stanley Milgram amazed everyone with his “small world” experiments, showing that a person could be connected to any given stranger in the United States by a remarkably short chain of I-know-someone-who-knows-someone. Those experiments, which coined the term “six degrees of separation” were a revelation in the 1960s. Now the concept has become so familiar that it is perhaps better known in its movie trivia form: “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

To better understand what is happening and what it means for individuals and organizations, we turn to a relatively new field of study: Social networking. We’ll look at four books. First we’ll see what the ever insightful Malcolm Gladwell has to say on the topic, in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Back Bay Books/Little Brown and Company, 2000). Second, we’ll turn to an exciting new book that’s hot off the presses: Karen Stephenson’s The Quantum Theory of Trust: Power, Networks and the Secret Life of Organizations (Financial Times Pearsons, 2006). Then we’ll examine the groundbreaking academic treatise Structural Models in Anthropology by Per Hage and Frank Harary, et al. (Cambridge University Press, 1984). And finally we’ll discuss Robert L. Cross and Andrew Parker’s The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations (Harvard Business School Press, 2004).

Malcolm Gladwell’s book popularized the useful and now nearly ubiquitous term “the tipping  point,” which in epidemiology describes “that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once,” Gladwell writes. He examines a similar phenomenon in culture. Small factors, ideas or behaviors gather momentum and become contagious. When they reach critical mass – the tipping point – they become epidemic. Gladwell’s experience writing about AIDS for the Washington Post, convinced him that change is about the “law of the few.”  He intuitively realized the powerful role which some people, who spread AIDS or create buzz for the newest novel or product, can have in moving along a social epidemic of any kind. Using this model, he shows how the crime rate can drop or Sesame Street can spread all over the world.

What interests us here is the motive force that Gladwell says drives all those little things toward their tipping point: People engaged in social networking. He identifies three types of social networkers: Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen. Mavens love to gather knowledge and pass it on to others. Connectors seem to know everyone. They can get information where it needs to go. And Salesmen are great persuaders. They are irresistibly positive and their ideas and attitudes are infectious. When these three types of people interact with a social network, little things can turn into big deals with astonishing speed.

Although The Tipping Point is often found in the business section of bookstores, it’s message is just as applicable to sociology, history, science and other fields. Plus, it’s simply an entertaining read.

Gladwell approaches his material in a highly intuitive way, but in

in a New Yorker article in December of 2000, he profiled a scholar who examined the same concepts in a more analytical and rigorous fashion. Karen Stephenson, a professor and business consultant, studied social networks within organizations to understand how information and influence flow in those settings.

By charting the flow of information, she showed how organizations are evolving from command and control structures, past the trendy world of networks to a strange new world of networked institutions, paying homage to Friedman’s spot-on prophecy that the world is both small and flat. She maps a pattern completely unlike the traditional organizational chart. She represented each person as a dot and drew lines between them to show paths of communication. In this way, she showed how information really flows through a system. At the time, she used her insights to help IBM create a new business on it and companies better organize their physical workspaces to accommodate and encourage social networking. Now that she has put her valuable insights into book form, with The Quantum Theory of Trust, she may be the Margaret Mead of social networking.

Stephenson has a background in quantum chemistry and mathematics but earned her doctorate in anthropology, studying the social networks found among Gibbons. The combination led her to study anthropology through a bio-statistician lens.  She then spent ten years as a professor in the management school of UCLA before going out on her own, only to be invited to teach at her alma mater, Harvard, in the Graduate School of Design.  Thus, over thirty years, she has devoted her life to culture and design, both of which have intricacies that are invisible to the untrained eye.

Her social networking studies show that information follows through and around certain archetypes. Some people are Hubs; information pathways radiate all around them. They know many people and others seek them out. But Stephenson warns that such people are not necessarily sophisticated in directing the flow of information. If you want to keep a secret, she says, don’t tell Hubs since they may be naďve in their attempts to make connections.  Gatekeepers, on the other hand, are expert at managing information flow. They know whom to tell what and when. Gatekeepers are an indispensable resource in building effective social networks. A less visible, but equally important archetype is the Pulsetaker. Pulsetakers are connected through a variety of networks but choose to STAY below the radar. They are keen observers of the people and trends around them and often make excellent mentors and coaches. Machiavelli proved himself the ultimate Pulsetaker when he described the Medici court.  

As Stephenson puts it, “Hubs know the most people; Gatekeepers know the right people, and Pulsetakers know the most people who know the right people.”  Professor Stephenson adds that Pulsetakers make some of the best change agents.

However, she admits, one rarely finds a pure archetype in real life. She sees Gladwell’s descriptions of Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen as useful hybrids of her archetypical Hubs, Gatekeepers and Pulsetakers. 

Stephenson                           Gladwell

Hub-Pulsetaker

Connectors

Gatekeeper-Pulsetaker

Maven

Hub-Gatekeeper

Salesmen

                Used with permission 2006 Dr. Karen Stephenson

For her, Gladwell’s Connectors are Hub-Pulsetakers. They combine the buoyant enthusiasm of Hubs with the finesse of  Pulsetakers. They enjoy knowing a large number of people, without feeling obligated to form deep relationships with all of them. And they are quick to use their Pulsetaking skills to find opportunities to bring members of their network together.

Mavens are Gatekeeper-Pulsetakers. They may not know quite as many people, but they are more invested in the people they do know. They lead softly and often imperceptibly by helping, teaching and enquiring.

Salesman are Hub-Gatekeepers. They are masters of interpersonal communication, picking up on subtle cues to better connect with their listeners. They get information across, but also seem to put their listeners under a spell. It is very difficult to say “no” to such a person.

Finally, Stephenson identifies one more important position. Some people combine all three of her other roles:  Hub, Gatekeeper and Pulsetaker.  She calls them “Strange Attractors”. These individuals are often unaware of the reach of their influence, but they can be a “powerful force for good or evil,” she says. She regularly finds them in organizations and is relieved they are a limited resource. Once identified, she says they “should be sparingly sprinkled into any recipe for change.”

Stephenson gained her precise perspective from her early scientific training and in part by working and studying for years with the deeply reflective anthropologist Per Hage and Frank Harary, a practical applied graphics expert. Our next book, Hage and Harary’s Structural Models in Anthropology. is the forerunner of rigorous social network analysis as we know it. 

The book approaches network theory as a continuation of the work of structural anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, who was looking for the basic unit of kinship, just as there is a basic unit of speech, the phoneme, in the field of linguistics. Per Hage was a traditional anthropologist who liked to use stories to show relationships, while Frank Harary is known for his development of approaches and ideas in graphic theory.  Their work pulled together articles and research to move the social network community inexorably toward identifying a basic unit of relationship as “the relationship”, rather than the anthropological view of kinship as the basic unit of relationship. 

They showed the way for how to use graphic techniques in social network analysis. They did not intend for the technique to “race ahead” of the theory; rather their focus was on the fusion of economics, sociology, anthropology and logic. They used “cultural” clues to represent the smallest particle of a work organization so that readers could see and decode the cultural particles, which is a bit like decoding the Da Vinci Code as Dr. Stephenson would say.

In their overview of the history of structuralism in Anthropology, the authors used famous studies from Margaret Mead to Claude Levi Strauss and the characters in famous novels to portray relationships among and between people, food, bodily fluids, rituals and reciprocity. Whether it’s the kinship roles in Brazil or the role of women, chains of relationships in networks trump individual relationships for clout and influence. 

It’s a bit like the current US advertisement showing a network of people behind someone with a mobile phone.  Hage and Harary show that it’s the power of the network and the group. It’s a fascinating book if you enjoy history and the process of creating visual representation of concepts like organizational design and analysis.

Although it is out of print, this brief but dense book is well worth tracking down. When you read through it, you will start to understand the power of graphic representations of social connections and gain a new respect for what happens in the social network analysis of organizations. 

For a more hands-on look at how social networking functions in organizations and how to better manage it, check out The Hidden Power of Social Networks, by Rob Cross and Andrew Parker. Their book is an in-the-trenches bunch of tips to understand  how social networks, often invisible to management, can save or scuttle an organization.

The important networking roles Cross and Parker identify include Central Connectors, Unsung Heroes, Bottlenecks, Boundary Spanners and Information Brokers (borrowed from the early work of David Krackhardt, Tom Allen, Karen Stephenson and Malcolm Gladwell), as well as various types of Peripheral People. They examine factors that contribute to or inhibit social connections, like physical proximity, time invested in relationships, length of time known, expertise gaps, network preferences, and organization positions.

The book is essentially a how-to guide with lists. Using examples from different types of  businesses, the authors encourage managers to look past the formal hierarchies they have put in place and to analyze the social networks that actually control the flow of power and information in their companies. Cross and Parker provide simple tools for that analysis and suggest practical methods for doing one’s own problem solving. Knowing about  networks and organizational analysis, leaders are warned to avoid blanket approaches and pinpoint the roles and players who have leverage in their organizations. Although it lacks the broader and deeper view of the other three works we’ve examined, this is a good, practical book to give to first-line supervisors and managers to help them understand how their networks function. 

In different ways, the four books, with their unique insights and guidance, help explain the complex metaphor of organizational success as represented by companies like General Electric and BMW. GE, one of the last century’s most successful organizations, is off to a great start in this century.  Much has been written about the leadership of Jack Welch, but what has had less media time is the organization’s extensive reliance on social networks long in place.  GE sustains organizational success decade after decade with different CEOs, thanks in great part to its fostering and effective use of those networks.

GE is an organization that knows its culture. The leadership knows and understands the culture’s strengths and weaknesses, the portfolio’s capabilities, and the reach and strength of its human resource network across all businesses and functions.  Within the culture are protected core values that are nourished and promulgated among every incoming generation of employees.  The behaviors and performance requirements are clear and practiced from the top of the organization to every level below. 

Therefore the management of directional tipping points such as the recent commitment to eco-imagination resound quickly and efficiently, setting a major organization in a new direction supported inherently and completely by its extraordinarily connected networks and functions. This is only the most recent example of a strategic tipping point shifting the cultural energy of a major company toward its next success agenda. Stephenson’s theory elegantly explains how a company like GE could succeed over generations of leaders. She points out that “networks, more than hierarchy and more than markets, make culture what it is and what it can be.” (Chapter 5 in manuscript).

GE has done a great job of creating social networks through its management development curriculum. Its more than 60 year history of management development programs like Financial Management, HR Management, Manufacturing Management, Executive Development Course or Management Development Course at Crotonville, etc. have created informal networks that get things done.  These programs attract the top cadre of people who become the leaders of businesses over time. What you become at GE is a function of who you knew when. The transfer of people across divisions and functions has also kept networking alive and robust. Plus, there is the annual ritual of the senior management meeting every January in Boca Raton. The value of networking at this major event is well known. So in GE, a big measure of knowing you’ll  “make it” is “When do I get to go to Boca Raton?” 

Karen Stephenson talks about how trust fuels networks and then how feed and sustain a culture.  Networks are a tool of culture at GE.  The GE culture is fed by the shared values of  its members. The company’s selection process is about seeking people who fit the GE mold. And the de-selection process is about ridding the organization of those who don’t fit. “Session C” at GE, the discussion of the characteristics of top-level executives, is a way of ensuring that the folks who don’t fit the culture leave while the networks support the rest. 

Essentially, networks of trust at work are ways of keeping a company moving forward through the sharing of information, confidence, knowledge, best practices. An organization’s ability to use and promote such networks is key to its success, though it’s a key that is often overlooked. It is easy to look at GE and see only a charismatic figure like Jack Welch, but in reality it’s the ebb and flow of information and trust shared by a complex web of people that keeps a company on course and nourished by a thriving culture. The four books we have examined, taken together, provide a roadmap to understanding those networks.  Networks can be difficult to see, but once you spot them, you’ll never look at an organizational chart -- or ever think of “culture” -- the same way again.

 
 

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