20 Sep Human networks: an antidote to process ideology
A few months back I wrote about the negative effects of what I call process ideology — the predominating belief that most problems in business can be solved by changing the way work activities, responsibilities and decision making are designed.
The process management view of sorting out problems is simple — if something isn’t working, it means the process isn’t working as designed or wasn’t designed properly in the first place. Fix the process and you solve the problem. If you believe this, the spirit of Frederick Winslow Taylor lives within you.
But there is more to business and organizations than organizational charts, process maps, work flows and decision diagrams. For one thing, most organizations I know have people in them, not simply computers. You can program the latter, but attempts to program the former usually fail, often miserably.
The academic and business media are overflowing with articles and tomes on “process this” and “performance that.” Thank goodness the field of studying how humans behave in the corporate setting is also alive and well. The research on human workplace dynamics provides a refreshing antidote to the process über-orthodoxy that has become so prevalent. A particularly bright light in this field is Dr. Karen Stephenson, an anthropologist and expert in human organizational dynamics. Where the performance zealots focus obsessively on process, Dr. Stephenson concentrates on the ways in which humans interact — through networks of relationships.
Dr. Stephenson asserts that every organization has a wealth of knowledge stored in the memories and intuitions of its employees. This tacit knowledge is shared through formal and non-formal networks which bond and motivate people within the organization. Her work gets at the importance of trust in the creation of such networks and explains why managers must harness the power of networks to efficiently guide innovation and change.
Dr. Stephenson believes that tacit knowledge is the source of innovation and that a catalyst for the creation of tacit knowledge is trust. The lines of trust that bind people together are invisible. These connections or networks are “the veins of a natural resource of knowledge, a honeycomb of collective consciousness which is mined for hidden sources of innovation. The challenge is to detect them, render them visible, understand their underlying structure and leverage them to increase productivity.” Stephenson’s company — Netform — provides the tools and methods to make networks explicit and to leverage them for positive change and performance improvement.
Dr. Stephenson believes that a network is the invisible structure of culture, an amalgam of bits and pieces of isolated knowledge in a collection of people. In her view, trust is the glue that makes knowledge whole by holding human networks together. She asserts that culture is impervious to process (there’s the p-word again) changes, change management or reengineering because of its field of energy: the networks of trust.
Stephenson concludes that new knowledge (or new ways of doing things) will be accepted only if adopted by the networks and advises executives to turn to the networks within their organization when rapid or radical change is called for.
Stephenson identifies three pivotal roles in the way networks operate.
The first role is the hub, as in a ‘hub and spoke’ system on a bicycle wheel. People who are hubs have the most connections with others in the organization and represent the optimal information distribution system.
The second role is the gatekeeper that is positioned on critical pathways connecting hubs to each other. Gatekeepers serve as important links or bridges within an organization and are uniquely positioned to facilitate change or obstruct it.
The third role involves people who are maximally connected to everyone via the shortest routes. These are called pulsetakers. Pulsetakers have their finger on the pulse of the organization and know what everyone is thinking and feeling.
These three “culture carriers” are usually invisible but always pivotal and should be used to slow or accelerate rates of change.
According to Stephenson, if you add together the workings of these roles, the cultural code of a network is revealed. She asserts that cracking this code and harnessing the power of networks is the key to efficiently guiding innovation and change in any knowledge-based context. She believes however that organizational hierarchies and methods like process management have their place to assure balance and accountability.
Networks can unravel a hierarchy and any hierarchy can crush a network. In her view, “Hierarchy without network is austere; network without hierarchy is anarchy. Together they form a natural tension in the dance to discovery.”
Whether your organization likes hip hop or prefers the waltz, understanding human networks and the key players in them is an essential step to making your dance one of discovery, not despair.
To access articles by Dr. Karen Stephenson, go to: http://www.netform.com/html/knowledge_management.html
Tony DiRomualdo is a business researcher, writer, and advisor with Next Generation Consulting. He works at the intersection of people, business strategy, and information technology to help companies create a committed and high performance workforce. Tony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.