Yes, the ability to succeed is contagious; if success is rooted in connection, it can spread virally across organizations and communities. But people with high positions are not the connectors who transmit these capabilities to others. As social network researchers know, there are three basic network roles, all discernible in mathematical analysis of systems like the U.K. regions or Philadelphia: hubs, gatekeepers, and pulsetakers. Hubs are the people who know the most people. They facilitate expansion of the network, trading (for example, the exchange of favors), and the rapid dissemination of information. Gatekeepers occupy a critical path. They are often the only bridge between an important part of the network and everyone else. They make a network stronger, in part by helping people focus and move things along. Pulsetakers are called on by other significant connectors, often for their judgment or insight, and they help the group maintain its integrity and perspective. They are invaluable in times of turmoil. (For more about these roles, see “Karen Stephenson’s Quantum Theory of Trust,” by Art Kleiner, s+b, Fourth Quarter 2002.)
Since the surveys can be used to identify people as hubs, gatekeepers, or pulsetakers (on the basis of who else mentioned them and in what context), their roles can be enhanced by deliberately putting these strategically connected and trustworthy people more consistently in touch with one another. We did exactly that in the U.K. to build bridges among community leaders and councils, and in Philadelphia to span socioeconomic barriers. A map of connectors, unlike a formal organization chart, shows the collaborative subtext that makes interagency cooperation successful.
And we did one other thing: We deliberately fostered more heterarchies. The beauty of a heterarchy is the way in which it enables people with diverse skills, knowledge, and working styles to operate without favoring one organization or culture over another. As a network that both requires and generates trust, a heterarchy operates like an invisible human utility. It puts forth a force of enormous power that, like electricity, can’t be observed with the naked eye.
Until we build better networks in our communities, lack of trust will corrode the democratic process. Conventional leaders can’t move us out of this situation. Community connector projects offer a modest template for returning to the collaborative methods that were the best practices of long ago, those that made the United Kingdom and the United States exemplars of democratic principles in action.
Reprint No. 07403
Karen Stephenson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is on the faculty of the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands and is the founder and chief executive of NetForm International, a New York–based developer of enterprise software for social network analysis. In 2006, she was awarded the first Hepburn Fellowship at Bryn Mawr College for her contributions to understanding civic engagement. Her Web site is www.drkaren.us.
Also contributing to this article was s+b Contributing Editor Sally Helgesen. The author wishes to thank Jeremy Hawkins, Peter Murphy, Geoff Mulgan, and Malcolm Gladwell.