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Published: August 28, 2006

 
 

On Trust and Culture

The Hidden Power of Social Networks is essentially a how-to guide, one of those management books that offer recipes for change in the form of lists of things to do. Using examples from different types of businesses, the authors encourage managers to look past the formal hierarchies and to analyze the social networks that control the flow of power and information in their companies. Rob Cross and Andrew Parker list simple techniques like skill profiling, instant messaging, changing performance evaluation to reward connections, and adjusting organization charts. Their appendices take readers through a step-by-step process for mapping networks through questionnaires and interpreting the information effectively. Although it lacks the breadth and depth of the Gladwell, Stephenson, and Hage/Harary works, this is a practical book with useful appendices, and an especially valuable guide for midlevel managers and first-line supervisors.

Socially Made Men
The fifth book looks at social networking from a different viewpoint altogether — that of a historian. Pamela Walker Laird, associate professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, recently wrote a chronicle of two centuries of the “old boy network” and its influence in the United States: Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin. Professor Laird destroys the myth of “self-made” men (rarely women), the idea that anyone can achieve fame and fortune if he just works hard enough. This has been a popular idea in America, at least: Worldly success comes to those who demonstrate individual worth in our glorious meritocracy. Even the American cowboy ideal was based on individual merit. Yet in real life, those who are well connected and who look and act the same as those in power tend to get ahead. Andrew Carnegie, for example, promoted himself as a “self-made man,” and he was indeed a gifted investor, manager, and technologist; but he was also a Scotsman who drew heavily in early life upon his connections through his countrymen in Pittsburgh, and, later, on connections forged in the nascent railroad industry and the American Civil War.

Professor Laird substantiates her point by writing about nepotism, the power of inner circles in many organizations, and the nature of legislation against discrimination in the mid-20th century. In many cases, this legislation has been about “push” — pushing people (such as women and minorities) to keep them out of the ranks of senior management, rather than finding ways to draw them in. It’s pull, or social networking, that brings executives through the glass ceiling; hence the importance of mentoring, sponsoring, networking, and connecting with role models in organizations. She adds that the vocabulary of social networking is useful precisely because it groups these other ideas into one conceptual whole. Those who are deemed “different” in organizations need more connections and fair Gatekeepers.

Until the middle of the 20th century, there were no ways to describe social networks other than with terms like family connections, nepotism, or old school ties. But as Professor Laird notes, social networking opportunities are everywhere today: professional associations, neighborhood groups, and even Big Brother or Big Sister organizations. Access to social networks with influence traditionally came through class and connections. People learned how to behave in those networks, and they gained the endorsement of people with clout. Using interesting tales about many well-known names in business, Pamela Walker Laird shows the importance of social networking in business history. Readers who enjoy biographies will enjoy this approach to social networking.

The Networkers of Crotonville
In different ways, these five books help explain the complex dynamics of organizational success, and they can be applied to any corporate situation. For example, much has been written about the charismatic leadership of former General Electric CEO Jack Welch; current CEO Jeffrey Immelt is beginning to enjoy the same kind of media attention. But the business media have traditionally tended to overlook GE’s extensive reliance on social networks, which were in place long before Mr. Welch stepped in, and which allowed his changes to take root. Indeed, GE sustains organizational success decade after decade with very different CEOs, thanks in great part to its deliberate use of its networks. Of course, the company didn’t always operate inclusively. In 1954, as Pamela Walker Laird points out, the interview protocol in the GE Handbook included questions about social upbringing. Favorable ratings were assigned to those who were raised in “relatively high socio-economic circumstances.” Now that’s being part of a privileged social network.

 
 
 
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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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