Magazine article Journal of Property Management

Interview: Karen Stephenson

Magazine article Journal of Property Management

Interview: Karen Stephenson

Article excerpt

If you just look at a companys organizational chart to understand how it works, you are missing the point.

KAREN STEPHENSON, professor of management at UCLA and president of NetForm

JPM: Much of your research has been on the informal networks that exist in organizations. Why are these networks important to a company?

Stephenson: The formal organization of a business is usually a hierarchy with the CEO at the top of the pyramid. Hierarchies show you where the power is, but often not how a company really runs. Networks are the unofficial, self-organizing structures that provide the paths for much of the communication and knowledge within a company. Network relationships are based on trust and depend upon the encoded and entrusted knowledge-usually face to face-to operate.

For example, when you get a phone call from an old friend you haven't talked to for years, it often seems as if you are just picking up from your last conversation. You have trust in that person, which taps into knowledge that you are probably not even conscious of and permits effective communication.

JPM: How do these social networks function in a business?

Stephenson: There are three pivotal positions in each network: the hubs, the gatekeepers, and the pulse takers. The hubs are the most highly connected individuals in the network (Mary in our example). Hubs have the most direct ties to other individuals in the network. Gatekeepers (Nancy in the example) function as transition points between the hubs of an organization. A gatekeeper can either help or impede the flow of information. Pulse takers (Paul and Ann) are the most indirect links in the network. They are not sources of information so much as interpreters: indirectly influencing how information is perceived.

JPM How valuable are these pivotal network positions in the way a company operates?

Stephenson: Networks are key in effecting change-especially rapid change-within an organization. If a company wants to implement a new policy, it should be sure that the hubs in its organization understand and support that change because they will be the ones who unofficially "explain" it to the rest of the staff. Also be sure that gatekeepers support the change, or the work flow between teams will suffer. Finally, once the change has been implemented, do a "reality check" with your pulse takers to be sure that the change is working well and has team support. By using the informal networks, even a company as small as 15 people can improve its internal efficiency.

JPM What happens if you ignore the network?

Stephenson: If a company attempts to reorganize and institute new policies without the buy-in of the network, in many cases nothing happens, processes do not change. In other cases, a reorganization destroys a network, and work processes can deteriorate. That does not mean that you cannot promote someone who is a key network member, but that person must be given the opportunity to mentor another individual not only to do the job he or she once did, but to understand the subtleties of the network, key contacts, who to watch, and how to handle them. It is the nature of this pivotal individual's relations within the network that gets the work done. A company has to be careful not to destroy that. It is also important to understand that if an individual is promoted over his or her existing relationships, that person may become less effective in the network, but potentially more effective in the hierarchy. …

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