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 / Autumn 2006 / Issue 44(originally published by Booz & Company)


On Trust and Culture

Mr. Gladwell identifies three types of social networkers: Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen. Mavens love to gather knowledge and pass it on to others: Mr. Gladwell describes one Maven who didn’t just recommend a Volvo to a colleague, he accompanied him when he went to buy one to ensure he got the best deal. The Maven likes to exercise expertise and be helpful.

Connectors seem to know everyone. They can get information where it needs to go because they just love to connect. Paul Revere, best known for rallying Middlesex, Mass., farmers with his cry, “The British are coming!” in the Revolutionary War, was a classic Connector, with a knack for knowing and attracting people. Had the silversmith been less gregarious, argues Mr. Gladwell, then the colonists might have lost.

Salesmen can be great persuaders. They are irresistibly positive; their ideas and attitudes are infectious. In effect, their positive emotions transmit to other people. Mr. Gladwell gives the example of Tom Gau, a financial planner in southern California, who made a ridiculously low bid on a new home, yet persuaded the seller to accept it. When these three types of people interact in the context of a social network, little ideas can turn into big deals with astonishing speed.

Like many bestsellers, The Tipping Point owes its popularity to the fact that it is an entertaining read about a compelling subject that unexpectedly illuminates a hitherto unseen aspect of our world; however, its longevity on the bestseller lists is due to the fact that it points to something both ancient and timely. Mr. Gladwell’s work was not the first of its kind, but, at just the right moment, he hit upon a phenomenon with fundamental importance for anyone who needs to anticipate the behavior of a network of people. His naming of that phenomenon with a short, punchy term from epidemiology was brilliant.

Mr. Gladwell approaches his material in a literary, unscientific way, but in a New Yorker article in December of 2000, he profiled a scholar who examines the same concepts in a more analytical and rigorous fashion. Karen Stephenson, a professor and business consultant, studies social networks within organizations to understand the patterns of information flow and influence in those settings.

Dr. Stephenson began using the techniques of social network analysis in the late 1970s to study ancient trade networks and early primitive organizations. She drew “sociograms,” or diagrams of the individuals in an organization, with each person represented as a dot and the lines between them showing the paths of communication. Later she adapted her analysis for the modern organization and tracked regular contact in meetings, by telephone, and via e-mail. In social systems as diverse as IBM and the network of Chinese philosophers who created the I Ching, the maps revealed important patterns of connectivity outside formal structures — the points of contact not explicitly reflected in the hierarchy.

Why do so many communications take place “off the charts”? This anomaly intrigued Dr. Stephenson. In puzzling through it, she recalled that most early anthropologists believed that in ancient social systems, kinship was determined by biological facts — marriage and reproduction. But then the famous anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers discovered that kinship was made up of both social and biological connections: People simply pretended they were kin when it suited them, and more often than not, the pretense became the reality. In much the same way, in modern organizations, the “real” work often takes place through informal personal connections. Many people pretend that maintaining these connections is part of their “official” job description, even when it is not. Executives had tried for years to “fix” their organization’s culture, or at least unravel its mysteries, by tweaking the flow of decision rights and hierarchical structures, but they had been looking in the wrong place. The tipping point for change could be triggered only in social networks, and, more importantly, in the trust relationships that underlie those networks, because people connect in meaningful ways only with those whom they consider trustworthy. And as Dr. Stephenson showed, a diagram of trust relationships typically looks nothing like the organization chart.

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Social Networking Resources:
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Rob Cross and Andrew Parker, The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), 304 pages, $29.95
  2. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, 2000), 279 pages, $25.95
  3. Per Hage and Frank Harary, Structural Models in Anthropology (Cambridge University Press, 1983, out of print), 201 pages
  4. Pamela Walker Laird, Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin (Harvard University Press, 2006), 439 pages, $29.95
  5. Karen Stephenson, The Quantum Theory of Trust: The Secret of Mapping and Managing Human Relationships (Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2006), 256 pages, $41.30
  6. International Network for Social Network Analysis’s list of networking resources: Click here.
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