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Studying the World Beneath the Org Chart

By combining her anthropological observations with techniques derived from her work in chemistry and mathematics, Dr. Karen Stephenson makes startling discoveries about how organizations really work.

August 30, 2001
Related Topics: Corporate Culture
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Dr. Karen Stephenson proves that anthropologists aren't limited to studying primitivecultures. She is a professor of business at Imperial College at the Universityof London and CEO/president of NetForm, a New York-based corporate consultingfirm. Stephenson works inside complex corporations (including IBM, TRW, MerrillLynch, and J. P. Morgan), mapping and measuring relationships. By combining heranthropological observations with techniques derived from her work in chemistryand mathematics, she makes startling discoveries about how these organizationsreally work.

Before anthropology, you were a chemist. How did you end up applying thoseskills to the workplace?
As a quantum chemist, I was studying robust patterns (repeating and thereforepredictable patterns in chemical reactions and atomic degradation) that occurredin nature. At the same time, I was in charge of a laboratory with 200 people.I noticed that the chemists and physicists were bumping around in the laboratoryin patterns not unlike the ones I was observing in atomic and subatomic particles.The humans, just like the subatomic particles, created some combinations thatwere duds and some combinations that were highly explosive. I thought, my gosh,what am I seeing here? I wanted to combine anthropology with my chemistry andmath background, to better understand what I was seeing.
Can you give me a corporate example of how humans mimicked the particles?
An issue that is important to HR is how new hires are brought into the organization.When new hires come in, 80 percent of their time is ineffective. They're bumpingaround in outdated processes, reading manuals that don't make any sense andthat no one follows-essentially a random and, for the most part, inefficientwalk through the culture. We've learned that the pattern really changes whenthey are grouped with people in a network who can explain how work really getsdone.
What do you mean by "network"?
We tend to think organizations run according to organizational charts. I usedto call the organizational chart the "corporate lie." I don't sayit anymore because the organizational chart is a map of formal procedures andprocesses and does work in times of organizational stress. But humans are cantankerous,don't follow rules, are naturally creative, and tend to step outside the lines.When they do, they create processes, behaviors, and habits that don't followthe organizational chart. These are the knowledge networks that control howthings get done. If you took an X-ray of the organization, you'd see four kindsof key networks: the social network, the work network, the innovation network,and the expert network. Networks have their own code, their own way of working.
Talk more about the official and unofficial ways that things get done atwork.
The formal organizational chart gives you an indication of what the baselineis or what the legacy of the company is. But people always deviate and changefrom the legacy; that's what causes organizations to change and to grow. It'sonly a bad thing if you don't understand what's really going on. It's toughto see this when you are part of the culture of an organization. But if youcould fly at 50,000 feet above the organization, you'd see how the networksfunction and how information flows within the organization. The tools that wecreate help corporations to get this kind of perspective.
Can you give an example of why a network is so important?
I did a study just before, and another one a year after, a major corporate restructuring.The organization was very frustrated because they had a whole new organizationalstructure, but the quality and the quantity of work they were able to get donedidn't change. After analyzing the networks, I discovered that all the samenetworks were still in place and in the same patterns from before the reorganization.The hierarchical chart may have changed, but the way the work got done didn't.At another organization, the exact opposite thing happened. Key people left,and they took their networks with them. What remained was chaos.
Describe the patterns that you see within organizations.
Each network has a large number of informal leaders who control the ways informationis exchanged. These informal leaders tend to take on the role of hub, gatekeeper,or pulse-taker.
Tell us about hubs.
Hubs are folks who have a high number of direct ties to them and fit the analogyof a hub-and-spoke system. The hubs in a human system are typically very goodcommunicators and transmitters of knowledge and have the trust of the peoplethey work directly with. Since trust is like an underground utility line, youcan't see it. That's why you've got to dig beneath the surface to see hubs andhow they influence your culture.
Tell us about gatekeepers.
Hubs have a natural limitation: people can't talk to 5,000 other peopleface-to-face. The most anyone's been able to develop a trusting relationshipwith is 150; most people hover around 50. Organizations often have more peoplethan that, so gatekeepers are people who link the hubs together. A gatekeeperis the opposite of a hub. Instead of being connected to a lot of people, theyhave few, but strategic, connections that bring together disparate parts ofan organization. Gatekeepers, because they're not connected to many people,are probably the most self-aware of all three positions. They know that informationfunnels through them and that they are in a position of power regarding thecontrol of that information.
 
So gatekeepers can do a lot of things to information, which can be goodand bad. They can color information; they can make it disappear; they canspray their personal bias like a patina on information and have it be forevercolored as it goes across the organization. If a gatekeeper holds on to informationin a negative way, he or she would be considered more of a bottleneck, andif a gatekeeper really moves information through, gets it to the right personon time, then he or she is considered a broker.
And finally we have the pulse-taker.
The pulse-taker is the least visible, the least intuitive, and to my mind themost interesting. Pulse-takers are indirectly connected to the greatest numberof people. Another way of saying it is that pulse-takers have the widest rangeand the deepest reach in an organization through the fewest paths. I often communicatethe role of a pulse-taker by recalling a famous pulse-taker in history, NiccoloMachiavelli. Machiavelli was a pulse-taker in the Italian court; he was unseenbut all-seeing. And he's fascinated us for over 500 years. If you map his interactions,you can see that he was very indirectly connected but had his finger on thepulse of the organization. He knew what was happening.
So everyone is classified as a hub, gatekeeper, or pulse-taker?
Everybody has degrees of all three in them. Our research has allowed us to developalgorithms to identify all the roles that each person plays and to what extentthey play those roles at any one time in an organization.
So how can HR professionals apply these anthropological tools at work?
Here's one example. Think about all the ways knowledge is passed on within anorganization: succession planning, mentoring, apprenticeship, coaching, etc.The more effectively you can use your hubs, gatekeepers, and pulse-takers totransfer knowledge, the more effective you can make your organization in managingand leveraging its own information for the customer in terms of products andservices.
How does your work help HR professionals?
HR, like anthropology, needs to use the skill of participant observation tolearn how to identify and observe informal leaders. But in the day-to-day workingsof the job, HR is often pulled this way and that way as they put out fires.They don't have the time or distance to be that focused about what's going on.That's why our tools are valuable, because they are another pair of eyes thatcan help an organization better see its internal structure and what's requiredto change how it works.
I've spent the last 10 years at UCLA building the world's largest database ofinformation about corporate networks. We've developed a lot of proprietary algorithmsto cut through all the data we've been collecting. No one has the time to observeover several years the real structure of an organization. So I call my processthe "Cliff Notes of Culture." It's how you can get a fast and accurateread on a company's culture. We can now take an organization's networks andbenchmark it against other companies by size, industry, etc. We can also usethe science of networks that we've developed to advise organizations how torestructure, merge, acquire another company, etc.
Do you ever get tired of corporate corridors and long to work in a primitivesociety somewhere or go and study other primates, like Jane Goodall?
In fact, I am doing exactly what Margaret Mead, Jane Goodall, and others haveaccomplished in their respective areas. I wanted to study the modern corporation,which is a living system, like anything else. At first, more traditional anthropologistsasked me why I wanted to study corporations. It's simple: because they're strangeand exotic when viewed from afar. They're as bizarre as anything I've ever studiedas an archaeologist in the land of the Maya in Yucatan and Guatemala or in theancient tombs of Egypt. It's a "living archaeology" of a culture,and I get to help executives piece together the puzzle and find hidden treasuresof knowledge.

Workforce, September 2001, pp. 64-68 -- Subscribe Now!

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