The third key type of individual is the “gatekeeper.” Gatekeepers are information bottlenecks, controlling the flow of contact to a particular part of the organization, thus making themselves indispensable. In many manufacturing companies, managers of key assembly plants are well known as gatekeepers, protecting the plant’s integrity (and their own position) by keeping a tight rein on the information flowing in either direction between the plant and the rest of the company.
Although hubs, pulsetakers, and gatekeepers are Professor Stephenson’s terminology, the ideas are not unique. The hub concept is a long-standing artifact of social network research, and gatekeepers were first identified by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thomas J. Allen, Jr. Professor Stephenson, however, has taken the research beyond description and into prescription, suggesting ways to intervene and improve the organization, literally by putting people into different roles based on their capacities as networkers.
“If I wanted to increase learning in a company,” she says, “I would take a gatekeeper in an innovation network and put him or her with a pulsetaker in an expert network. That’s an algorithm for facilitating the distribution of knowledge.”
Professor Stephenson’s work has come to seem less counterintuitive in the last year or two, especially as an organization like Al Qaeda has demonstrated how powerful informal connections can be.
Then there is the growing awareness that ideas and trends, like epidemics, spread in nonlinear fashion, with the makeup of human contact being the most important factor. New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell described this concept in his bestseller The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown & Company, 2000). He was later introduced to Professor Stephenson at a dinner party convened by a Saatchi & Saatchi executive — someone who was a “hub” in Professor Stephenson’s terms, or a “connector” in Mr. Gladwell’s — who knew them both. He immediately recognized her as not just a kindred spirit, but someone who had applied research rigor to the phenomenon that he had popularized.
“My whole thesis is that certain people play critical networking roles,” says Mr. Gladwell. “Karen can actually go to a company and point them out. And yet her work is quite subversive in a certain way. It’s hard to accept the idea that there are people who play critical roles who don’t show up on the organization chart. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘This person is a powerful networker, and deserves a raise.’ But Karen gives us a tool for measuring the contribution of these social types.”
Social network theory evolved from studies outside corporations — for instance, of indigenous communities in New Guinea adopting new ideas, or of the spread of HIV through sexual contact. The field is based on the idea that the modeling techniques theoretical physicists use to study subatomic particles can be applied to build elaborate computer simulations of something equally complex: the patterns of contact and colloquy among human beings. (For more on the mathematics behind social network theory, see “Network Theory’s New Math,” click here.)
The conclusions that network researchers reach have a way of illuminating the otherwise unexplainable mysteries of organizational triumphs and disasters. Traditional system analysis methods such as econometrics “assume that everybody acts independently,” says Carnegie Mellon University professor David Krackhardt, editor of the Journal of Social Structure, one of the field’s leading scholarly publications. “Network analysis,” he adds, “does just the opposite. It assumes that everyone is interdependent. It provides a kind of pattern recognition that makes sense of the complex relationships among people: Here are the bottlenecks; here are the points that are essential to a system, so that if you remove that node, the network falls apart.”