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strategy and business
 / Fourth Quarter 2002 / Issue 29(originally published by Booz & Company)


Karen Stephenson’s Quantum Theory of Trust

The effectiveness and power of an individual, in short, depends not just on his or her position in the hierarchy, but on the person’s place in a variety of intertwined networks.

If you were to plug all the data from Professor Stephenson’s questionnaires into network modeling software (as she does), you would end up with a series of maps much more complex than the ones shown in Exhibits 1 through 3, showing a large number of possible networks. Professor Stephenson tends to focus on six networks: the three described in this anecdote, plus networks of innovators, established experts, and process improvers. (See the “Six Varieties of Knowledge Networks,” at the end of this article.) A typical social network analysis uncovers and tracks the number of links among individuals in any of these networks, the frequency with which people communicate, the relative significance of their communication, and the number of people through which a message passes. Looking at these maps of informal networks, you start to see, as Professor Stephenson puts it, “how the network itself has an intelligence, more than the sum of its parts and beyond the cognition of any one individual.”

You also see how to intervene far more effectively. Although the telecommunications company weathered its divisional succession crisis, a preliminary network analysis would have exposed hidden staff problems and opportunities. It would have shown how overburdened Diane was, and it would have helped a savvy leader cultivate her far more effectively — by reorienting her job and setting aside time for her to codify her knowledge or impart it to others. It would have identified Stan as a quiet but highly significant potential leader, so he could have been made part of the management team earlier. It would have made clear the extent to which Joe needed leadership development. It also would have identified up-and-comers lower in the hierarchy. Perhaps most important, an analysis would have given someone (a trusted head of human resources, perhaps) the ability to approach the CEO and say, “There’s a lot going on that you are not aware of, and it’s affecting your capability and that of the entire division.”

Double-Helix Management
Professor Stephenson doesn’t suggest replacing hierarchies with networks. Rather, she sees organizations as a sort of double-helix system, with hierarchy and networks perpetually influencing each other, ideally co-evolving over time to become more effective.

But if a CEO wants to strengthen a hierarchy, he or she can also use networks to do so, by establishing new relationships based on three kinds of network “nodes” — categories of people whose personalities and patterns of relationships crop up again and again in the software analyses. The first of these is the hub, the kind of person who becomes a gathering and sharing point for critical information. Hubs show up on network maps like the centers of star clusters, sometimes with dozens of links radiating out from them. Diane, the frustrated subordinate in the CEO succession story, was a key hub because she had what Professor Stephenson calls “centrality”: She ranked high as a connector among people; the shortest route to the information needed about work assignments was often through Diane.

Stan, the executive who eventually became CEO, was a different kind of network archetype, a “pulsetaker.” Pulsetakers, says Professor Stephenson, carefully cultivate relationships that allow them to monitor the ongoing health and direction of the organization. It’s not always easy to tell who the pulsetakers are.

“Even I, after 30 years of research, can’t see them by staring at the diagrams,” she says. “You can only detect them through the mathematics” — by which she means the algorithmic analysis of survey data. A pulsetaker’s patterns of connection show a distinct mathematical pattern, with links that are relatively sparse, but frequently used and diverse. Every now and then someone gets colloquially recognized as the first to sense changes in the wind, and to intervene in subtle but powerful ways. Professor Stephenson likens them to “prairie dogs, poking their heads above the cubicle tops to see what’s going on.” They make good CEOs in times of crisis, Professor Stephenson says.

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  1. Joel Garreau, “Disconnect the Dots,” Washington Post, September 16, 2001
  2. Malcolm Gladwell, “Designs for Working,” The New Yorker, December 11, 2000; Click here.
  3. Albert-László Barabási, Linked: The New Science of Networks (Perseus Publishing, 2002)
  4. Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Perseus Publishing, 2002)
  5. Journal of Social Structure: Click here.
  6. NetForm International:
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