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


Karen Stephenson’s Quantum Theory of Trust

Part of Professor Stephenson’s current research is devoted to tracking the patterns of movement from one network profile to another, patterns that recur from organization to organization. “It’s like a Rubik’s cube,” she says, “turning in three dimensions, with the organization spiraling through the various quadrants in a helixlike motion over time.” She is also articulating the factors that make the most difference in moving the networks in healthier directions — factors in which trust is always central. For example, one easy way to improve the level of trust, anytime and anywhere, is simply to increase the speed with which people respond to communication. When people return our calls or e-mails quickly, it sends a signal that we can rely on them because our connection, however distant, is important enough to claim some of their attention. “Human beings always keep an internal accounting system of who owes what to whom,” says Steve Haeckel, director of strategic studies at IBM’s Advanced Business Institute, who has collaborated with Professor Stephenson for 10 years on some of the trust-related research she’s done. “Response time is one indicator of the degree of trustworthiness of the other individual.”

You can also weaken trust in networks by removing key people. This approach to altering networks takes on particular relevance in Professor Stephenson’s current work with the Defense Department’s research agency. She is working with the agency to identify key nodes of Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks; undermining trust within those networks may be as effective a form of defense against them as, say, attacking their remaining strongholds with military force.

It may seem unnerving to think of networks as something that can be undermined or manipulated; after all, they are composed of human friendship and behavior. But politicians and leaders (as well as novelists and dramatists) have long known, if only intuitively, how a mere word of betrayal or trust, or the movement of a particular key person from one spot to another, can significantly change an outcome. Professor Stephenson’s theories, if they turn out to be correct, will simply provide a scientific underpinning for this awareness — and a far more powerful and reliable capability, for those who choose to use it.

And there lies the rub for the rest of us. Do we want to live in a world where people, even those with the best of intentions, have this kind of power to disrupt and reshape networks? Or perhaps we already live in such a world, and it’s up to us to engender the kind of trust that will, in the end, make it palatable to remain there.

Reprint No. 02406

Six Varieties of Knowledge Networks

In any culture, says Karen Stephenson, there are at least six core layers of knowledge, each with its own informal network of people exchanging conversation. Everybody moves in all the networks, but different people play different roles in each; a hub in one may be a gatekeeper in another. The questions listed here are not the precise questions used in surveys. These vary on the basis of the needs of each workplace and other research considerations (“Don’t try this at home,” says Professor Stephenson), but they show the basic building blocks of an organization’s cultural makeup.

1. The Work Network. (With whom do you exchange information as part of your daily work routines?) The everyday contacts of routinized operations represent the habitual, mundane “resting pulse” of a culture. “The functions and dysfunctions; the favors and flaws always become evident here,” says Professor Stephenson.

2. The Social Network. (With whom do you “check in,” inside and outside the office, to find out what is going on?) This is important primarily as an indicator of the trust within a culture. Healthy organizations are those whose numbers fall within a normative range, with enough social “tensile strength” to withstand stress and uncertainty, but not so much that they are overdemanding of people’s personal time and invested social capital.

3. The Innovation Network. (With whom do you collaborate or kick around new ideas?) There is a guilelessness and childlike wonderment to conversations conducted in this network, as people talk openly about their perceptions, ideas, and experiments. For instance, “Why do we use four separate assembly lines where three would do?” Or, “Hey, let’s try it and see what happens!” Key people in this network take a dim view of tradition and may clash with the keepers of corporate lore and expertise, dismissing them as relics.

4. The Expert Knowledge Network. (To whom do you turn for expertise or advice?) Organizations have core networks whose key members hold the critical and established, yet tacit, knowledge of the enterprise. Like the Coca-Cola formula, this kind of knowledge is frequently kept secret. Key people in this network are often threatened by innovation; they’re likely to clash with innovators and think of them as “undisciplined.”

5. The Career Guidance or Strategic Network. (Whom do you go to for advice about the future?) If people tend to rely on others in the same company for mentoring and career guidance, then that in itself indicates a high level of trust. This network often directly influences corporate strategy; decisions about careers and strategic moves, after all, are both focused on the future.

6. The Learning Network. (Whom do you work with to improve existing processes or methods?) Key people in this network may end up as bridges between hubs in the expert and innovation networks, translating between the old guard and the new. Since most people are afraid of genuine change, this network tends to lie dormant until the change awakens a renewed sense of trust. “It takes a tough kind of love,” says Professor Stephenson, “to entrust people to tell you what they know about your established habits, rules, and practices.”

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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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