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


On Trust and Culture

In complex systems, the features of the three archetypes and three hybrids can on occasion converge into one powerful position, the Hub–Gatekeeper–Pulsetaker, or HGP. Dr. Stephenson nicknames these rarities “Strange Attractors.” These individuals are often unaware of the reach of their influence. HGPs work below the radar. Rarely is an HGP the head of a company.

Dr. Stephenson gained her precise perspective from her early scientific training and by working and studying for years with the deeply reflective anthropologist Per Hage and the mathematician Frank Harary. In fact, the textbook Structural Models in Anthropology, written by her two mentors, is the forerunner of graphic social network analysis as we now use it.

Per Hage was an anthropologist who liked to use stories to show relationships, whereas Frank Harary was known for his pioneering research in graph theory — the study of visual representations of networks and grids. Their work moved social network researchers inexorably toward identifying a basic unit of cultural meaning as “the relationship” rather than taking the traditional anthropological view of “kinship” as the basic unit.

The two men also showed how to use graphic techniques to highlight the nature of the relationships among individuals, groups of people, symbols, and cultural stories. “Cultural” clues unearthed this way could include rules for eating, marriage, gift exchange, or warring. The authors showed how, given a few basic symbols or rules, whole systems of meaning could be decoded in the same way that a few rules of syntax can jump-start an elementary understanding of an unfamiliar language.

In their overview of the history of anthropology, Professors Hage and Harary use famous studies from Margaret Mead, the work of Claude Levi-Strauss, and the characters in novels to portray relationships between and among people, food, bodily fluids, rituals, and reciprocity.

When it was first published, this book demonstrated the power of graphic representations of social connections and engendered a new respect for social network analysis, particularly of organizations. Although it is out of print, this brief but dense book is well worth tracking down.

For a more hands-on look at how social networking functions in organizations and how to better manage it, see The Hidden Power of Social Networks, by Rob Cross and Andrew Parker. (Mr. Cross is the coauthor of “The Craft of Connection.”) Their book offers in-the-trenches tips for understanding how social networks, often invisible to management, can save or scuttle an organization.

The authors identify their own set of important networking roles. Their Central Connectors are akin to Mr. Gladwell’s Connectors. The opposite of these central people are the Bottlenecks. They may be ultra-busy managers who travel so much and spend so much time on e-mail and phone calls they don’t have time to connect when others need them. They are similar to Dr. Stephenson’s Gatekeepers; they can hijack or help momentum in getting things done. Information Brokers act like Central Connectors with organizational information. Boundary Spanners may be rare, but could be the kind of people an organization needs to cultivate, to ensure that various departments or groups communicate with one another across functions or regions, and share expertise and knowledge of clients, competitors, and more. The authors give examples of some successful Boundary Spanners, and mention in passing that management can’t dictate that a Boundary Spanner play this role; it’s simply too informal. Management can only provide the permission, recognition, and financial support that allow people who are predisposed to this kind of role to invest themselves in it. Another role in this book is the Peripheral People — including Mavens and experts in the legal, human resources, and technology domains — whom the authors don’t see as being very central to organizational networking.

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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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