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Published: August 28, 2006

 
 

On Trust and Culture

The researcher has used her insights to help companies like IBM and Steelcase create new businesses. She and other social network analysts are bringing cultural relativity into the world of business in the same way Margaret Mead brought the concept to home and hearth a century ago. In her book The Quantum Theory of Trust, Dr. Stephenson shows how organizations are evolving from command-and-control structures, past interim thinking about networks to a strange new world of networked institutions, which she calls “heterarchy.”

Dr. Stephenson has a background in quantum chemistry and mathematics but earned her doctorate in anthropology, first studying social networks among baboons. Her background in four seemingly unrelated fields — biology, anthropology, business, and design — is one of the factors that distinguish her book from others written about social networking. All of these fields, including design, have at their core the study of complex systems, with intricacies that emerge from common sources, invisible to the untrained eye. She connects dots across professional divides, which is a rare thing in academia.

The social networking studies described in The Quantum Theory of Trust revealed that information connects through at least three “archetypes” — network roles that recur regularly in organizations and communities, no matter how different they might be in other ways. In any given organization, there are always some people who play the part of Hubs. Information pathways radiate all around them; they know the most people, and others seek them out because of their charismatic charm and ability to multitask. Dr. Stephenson warns readers that Hubs are consummate jugglers: “Keeping all the balls in the air is not the same thing as directing the flow of information.” So if you want to keep a secret, she says, don’t tell Hubs; they connect naively, not strategically.

Gatekeepers, by contrast, are expert at managing information flow. They know what to tell when, and to whom, in order to achieve their goals. They show up in network diagrams as connected to a few, not many. A department manager who insists on being the only contact point for all of his or her subordinates is a classic Gatekeeper. A well-placed Gatekeeper can facilitate highly efficient communication, and a counterproductive Gatekeeper can hijack momentum.

A less visible, but equally important, archetype is the Pulsetaker. Pulsetakers are keen observers of the people and trends around them and often make excellent mentors and coaches. Niccolo Machiavelli proved himself the ultimate Pulsetaker when he described the ways in which the initiative, attitudes, and strength of a Medici prince tended to influence the mood of the other key people around him, and thus to affect how long he would stay in power. One can imagine a modern-day Machiavelli making similarly perceptive comments in hushed tones to trusted colleagues, about the vice president of marketing or the head of the Asia Pacific region.

One of the first steps in any serious change initiative should be to bring some Pulsetakers on board. As Dr. Stephenson puts it, “Hubs know the most people; Gatekeepers know the right people; and Pulsetakers know the most people who know the right people.”

Roots of Corporate Culture
Dr. Stephenson realizes that one rarely recognizes pure mathematical archetypes in real life. She says that on the ground, people usually encounter hybrids, and she assigns Mr. Gladwell’s descriptions of Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen as naturally occurring hybrids of her mathematical archetypes. For example, she says Mr. Gladwell’s Connectors are Hub–Pulsetakers. They combine the buoyant enthusiasm of Hubs with the finesse of Pulsetakers. Mavens are Gatekeeper–Pulsetakers. They may not know quite as many people, but they are more invested in the people they do know. And Salesmen are Hub–Gatekeepers. 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.

 
 
 
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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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