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Donkin on Work - Networks

November 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 information loops.

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 of direction.

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 sharing information.

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 other.

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 pulse-taker.

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 Bond films.

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

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