1998 - Office networks
How do you find things out in
your company? Where do you get your news? Does
it come in the form of a memo from on high or
do you pick up gossip in the canteen? And what
do you do with the news when you have it?
The answer to this last question
can be vital to the running of a business, yet
so much advice on corporate communications - and
there is almost as much as there is on leadership
- is of the "how to" kind.
Companies instigate a plethora
of systems such as intranets, team briefings,
memos and e-mails to get their message across.
It is usually a top-down system because managements
are still hierarchical and many do not yet understand
how or even why they are being cut out of the
Working in a news environment,
the sense of control that governs the dissemination
of news seems in direct contrast to the Brownian
motion of internal information. Internal news
cannons around like a pinball with as much sense
The top-down stuff is quickly
digested and that which we need is filed away.
This is what is supposed to happen. But something
else happens too. Some of the information is subject
to testing and analysis. Groups of people will
gossip about the meaning of certain moves or strategies.
Some will talk on the telephone or exchange internal
e-mails, looking for interpretations.
The information is passed and
translated among various networks - some extending
beyond the company - with the result that many
management moves have been analysed and explained,
often anticipated, way beyond anything that has
been placed in a memo.
Karen Stephenson, professor of
management at UCLA in the US and at the Theseus
Institute in France, has studied such networks,
which she believes can become powerful groups
in either blocking or instigating change.
I met her last week at a cocktail
party hosted by the Institute of Personnel and
Development, but it was not until afterwards,
when reading one of her papers pulled from her
web site (NetForm.com ) that I discovered she
had made a practice of analysing the behaviour
of people at cocktail parties. Whether we know
it or not, at such gatherings we are establishing
what she calls "invisible lines of trust".
It is this that makes us feel comfortable about
Such encounters seem quite different
from those inspired by blatant networking - the
practice of meeting and cultivating people because
we think they might be of use to us. That kind
of networking seems less about trust and more
about exploitation but it may be old-fashioned
to think this way. A natural network, however,
does seem to emerge when people find that they
have something in common or that they like each
Prof Stephenson uses a kite image
to describe the three types of people found in
all networks. Firstly there is the "hub"
at the centre of the kite - the individual with
many connections to different people. Then there
are "gatekeepers" at the foot of the
kite, without whom information will not flow to
certain areas along the tail. Others, she calls
"pulse-takers", are placed between the
hub and the gatekeeper. These are the sort of
people who have their ear to the ground. They
tend to be less visible and their role is not
easily understood or appreciated.
The pulse-takers seem the most
interesting employees because they will often
analyse and interpret any information. Their verdict
- respected by those who are plugged in to their
opinions - can make or break a management policy.
Prof Stephenson says Machiavelli was a typical
Identifying such people and understanding
their role can be vital if a management is attempting
to introduce some innovation or change in working
practices. It might be wise to consult the pulse-takers
beforehand for their opinions.
Prof Stephenson uses what she
calls "network analysis" to find these
people. Employees are asked between five and 10
questions about who they associate with within
certain spheres at work.
Anyone reading this will be able
to recognise instantly various groupings in their
own organisation - who goes with whom to the pub
and who they meet there, who has had affairs with
whom, the people who meet at the same table in
the canteen every day, who share the same religion
or went to the same school.
At this newspaper journalists
who share certain interests are readily identifiable
in message groups. In addition to departmental
groups there are message groups for football,
rugby, cricket, tennis, cinema and opera. There
is one for people who frequent the pub and there
is even one called "tightwad" where
people exchange tips for saving money.
Within these groups, which cross
international boundaries, it is possible to identify
those who have specialist knowledge of, say, the
West Indies cricket team, Welsh rugby or James
The tendency of like-minded people
to gravitate towards each other is not always
healthy when a company is seeking diversity in
its working groups. Prof Stephenson warns that
such tribal groups can be exclusionary, masking
a "fundamental fear of differences".
Clearly if a company is seeking to introduce some
kind of change in the workplace it will be in
its interest to know these hidden networks and
to understand their workings.
© 1998 Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved