01 April 2009

Karen Stephenson at OCAD: Organization Beyond Social Networks

Last evening, I attended a talk given by Karen Stephenson, business anthropologist extraordinaire. Her work focuses on the relative (im)permeability of organizational cultures, and how various forms of social networks that emerge in organizations can be used to understand organizational change, and deal with many of the myriad complex challenges that defy conventional thinking. Stephenson considers an organizational network as the “genetic code” that can be used to unlock any organizational culture. Essentially, these networks are comprised of the trust-based relationships that enable entry and participation in any subgroup within the organization as a whole. (She briefly goes into the construction of trust, essentially calling on Niklas Luhmann's 1979 work on Trust and Power without actually naming him.) Networks cut through the official hierarchy and essentially map out who communicates or consults with whom, who enables or prevents information flow and access to whom, and who are the most and least effective disseminators of knowledge, influence, and social norms.

She observes – correctly, I think – that most strategic insight and initiative is limited by the fact of ego-centric networks: we know who we know, and only on a very limited basis do we indirectly know those whom our direct network knows. In the context of an organization, this limitation means that it is challenging to engage a critical mass of knowledge, insight, and experience without being cognizant of complex network interconnections that enable “weak ties” (in Granovetter’s terms from the 1970s) to bridge beyond those whom I more-or-less know to those who I really need to know. In a very real sense, this is (one of) the problem(s) that social media sites such as LinkedIn (and their ilk), and to a lesser extent, Facebook, Twitter, and even Amazon recommendations, are attempting to solve (whether they realize it or not). The real issue, according to Stephenson, is how to access the tacit knowledge that exists among individual trust relationships, and make it visible to the organization at large (which, in my language, I would frame as the challenge of creating organizational-ba).

Her approach to this problem is to understand the networks that exist in any given organization, that transcend and survive hierarchies (and organizational restructurings that are more like the clich├ęd rearranging-the-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic). She accomplishes this – and quite effectively, it seems – by mapping the networks that exist in the organization, and identifying the “hubs” (highly connected individuals), the “gatekeepers” (those that connect between two subgroups), and the “pulsetakers” (who may have limited network connections but are highly influential in terms of reading the culture and informing decision-making processes). Identify these key roles, and change the minds of the key 5% of these people, and organizational change is possible, she claims. It might also be useful to understand that the cute diagram of this typography just happens to be the branding graphic for her consulting company.

Her work sounded very familiar and indeed, it is very close to that of Valdis Krebs, whom I followed a few years ago. And her construct of hubs, gatekeepers, and pulsetakers is almost a direct translation of Ronald Corwin’s work from the mid-1980s, all of which, of course, owes allegiance to Mark Granovetter. I’m not saying what she does isn’t useful – she invests a considerable amount of time during her talk telling us just how useful (and seemingly important and influential) she, personally, has been by dropping more names than a paid-off poll clerk in a rigged election (yeah, this raised my hackles somewhat - I hate when people do that; impress me with your ideas, not with who else may think you're smart). I think she is limited in her thinking by accepting the premise that there is no active way to eliminate hierarchy, to gain access to the direct networks of others, nor to effectively facilitate changing her identified key roles that have emerged, seemingly on their own accord. All of this defies complexity theory, and a conception of organizations as (potentially) autopoietic, dissipative structures with inherent cognition. I'm pretty sure I have mechanisms that are counter-examples to these contentions among the UCaPP organizations in my research.

The other aspect that either she had no time to address last evening, or has not considered, is the vital importance of identity construction in the face of organization change. My research seems to indicate that Identity-valence may be the most significant impediment to change, which is one of the main reasons why I think many hierarchical restructurings tend to change nothing. It's also the reason I suggest that any real change that also changes the framework on which Identity-valence is constructed is exceedingly difficult and requires considerable effort, distraction, coaching, and dedication-to-the-cause to effect. I do think that it’s also consistent with people in Stephenson’s network roles (hub, gatekeeper, pulsetaker) retaining those network roles, since they are a large part of how people create their Identity-valence relationship with the organization (interestingly, both in ba- and fungible-forms as I think about it).

All in all, not a bad presentation, and it certainly impressed (most of) the crowd. But tell me: why do all the business anthropologists I have run into over the past few years always, without exception, attempt to establish themselves as the alpha-critter in a social grouping?

Update (18 Apr 2009): For those interested in some of the consequential effects of the massively networked world in the context of organization, I have posted some musings on social media and organizations.

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Anonymous said...

I thought Karen presented a pretty good and open structure with which to think on networks. I don't know about the name dropping thing, I thought she was rather humble considering the vast amount of distance she's covered.

Your contention about her claim that hierarchy is a rather unavoidable fact is something I share. More though, I'm realizing hierarchy is inherent, but also inherently transient. Unlike networks and trust, which are inherently permanent. Or like she mentioned, betraying forever remembered.

Mark Federman said...

In the natural sciences, our models of a phenomenon don't create the phenomenon. In that sense, all natural science models are inherently wrong - it's simply a matter of how useful they are in describing (and predicting) a phenomenon within our ability to measure it.

On the other hand, in the social sciences (including management), our models of (especially behavioural) phenomena very much create the phenomena. In that sense, all social science models are inherently correct, so long as you can get enough people to subscribe to your favourite model of the day. The history of management and organization development is an easy demonstration of that notion.

Hierarchy as a form of organization has been around for a long, long time, but it is essentially a human conception that has been useful for those who want to exercise control over others. When exerting control is no longer considered a necessity, or if we are willing to reconceive our fundamental understanding of what an organization is, or both, the usefulness of hierarchy as an organizing construct can very much be called into question.