Which Builds Trust & Innovation Better: Networks or Hierarchies?

13 09 2007

One of these is better than the other for building trust and promoting innovation whether internally (staff or staff and volunteer leaders) or externally (staff, volunteer leaders, rank and file members, other stakeholders). It is more effective at developing and sharing tacit knowledge, is more flexible and better promotes a back and forth diversity of thought.

One of these is better at building exclusive, authoritative knowledge that is developed and delivered one way and is more rigid and traditional in practice and thought.

One is stronger overtime while the other is stronger at key moments in time.

One shows you the rules for how things should get done while the other (if you can locate it) would tell you how it actually gets done.

One represents a hierarchy of knowledge and the other a network of knowledge.

Deep Diving on Your Own Networks

Now, think about your own office and ask yourself:

  • With whom do I exchange information as part of my daily work routine?
  • With whom do I “check in,” inside and outside my office, to find out what is going on?
  • With whom do I collaborate or kick around new ideas?
  • To whom do I turn for expertise or advice?
  • With whom do I seek for advice about the future?
  • With whom do I work to improve existing processes or methods?

Each question seeks to know what your personal network is for transactions that are related to: work operations, social exchange, innovation, expertise, future trends, and outcome-based learning. The currency used in such transactions is trust. The more trust we develop and place in someone the more we tend to work through them for our needs.

If you are like me, chances are your answers may not follow the “chain of command” or the “official liaisons” of various business units, volunteer leadership bodies or special interest groups in the organizations you serve. You have established “invisible” networks for specific purposes and they exist only among and between those included in them.

Social Network Analysis in Organizations

According to Dr. Karen Stephenson a leader in the emerging field of social network analysis (SNA), these networks make up the culture (healthy or otherwise) of your organization. SNA examines human interaction within an organization particularly those outside formal structures. Presently, Stephenson is focusing her studies on how the two systems (Hierarchies and Networks) can be more fully integrated and optimized into “networked institutions” she calls Heterarchies.

The main problem Stephenson points out is that organizations through hierarchies tend to promote “homogeneity” of thought driving “diversity” of thought to less formal social networking structures thereby inhibiting the ability to develop new perspectives from emerging issues and trends or testing traditional beliefs, systems and practices to ensure continued relevance. This tends to mask a “fundamental fear of difference” (you don’t walk or talk like me, publish in the same place as me, know the secret handshake… so you cant be worth knowing). In a world of increasing globalization this is a significant obstacle to extending one’s influence or the adoption of one’s products, services or practices.

According to Stephenson, management (in our case…staff and volunteers) ought to put the right people in the right places to foster new opportunities for collaboration that can better support hierarchies of knowledge with its network counterpart. We need to better leverage the effectiveness and power of an individual’s networks which depends not just on his or her position in a hierarchy, but on the person’s place in a variety of intertwined networks.

“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 how the network itself has an intelligence, more than the sum of its parts and beyond the cognition of any one individual.”

Mapping Networks – Hubs, Gatekeepers, Pulsetakers

According to Stephenson, in any organization people play different parts in networks.

There are some who play the part of Hubs (like Diane above) who draw information all around them. Hubs know the most people and others seek them out because of their charismatic charm and ability to multitask. Dr. Stephenson warns that Hubs are consummate jugglers: “Keeping all the balls in the air is not the same thing as directing the flow of information.” So if you want to keep a secret, she says, don’t tell Hubs; they connect naively, not strategically.

Gatekeepers (like Heather) are expert at managing information flow. They know what to tell when and to whom in order to achieve their goals. They connect to a few people, the most important ones. A department manager who insists on being the only contact point for all of his or her subordinates is a classic Gatekeeper. A well-placed Gatekeeper can facilitate highly efficient communication, and a counterproductive Gatekeeper can hijack momentum.

A less visible, but equally important, archetype is the Pulsetaker. Pulsetakers (Fernando and Garth) are keen observers of the people and trends around them and often make excellent mentors and coaches. One of the first steps in any serious change initiative should be to bring some Pulsetakers on board. As Dr. Stephenson puts it, “Hubs know the most people; Gatekeepers know the right people; and Pulsetakers know the most people who know the right people.”

As we study how “social networks” can play a business role in our associations we ought to remember that these informal networks are “under the radar” of most of us and is certainly not congruent with our hierarchies. We should also understand that (especially in light of the popularity of “social networks” in the news and among our peers on listservs and such) a network for social needs may not be the same we would use for expert knowledge or learning.

For more on Social Network Analysis, you might be interested in a new certificate program developed by Dr Stephenson and run by the Organization Development Network an international professional association of organization development practitioners.

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5 12 2008
links for 2008-12-04 | jordoncooper.com

[…] Which Builds Trust & Innovation Better: Networks or Hierarchies? (tags: creativity organization) […]

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