Diagnosing Cultural Health

An anthropologist uncovers the social networks that really drive organizations.

By Kathryn Tyler August 1, 2011
April Cover

When Karen Stephenson was in graduate school at Harvard University, she surprised her professors by suggesting that the research tools of cultural anthropology could be valuable for corporations such as IBM. Stephenson has studied cultural anthropology for 35 years and is president of NetForm International Inc., a New York City-based consulting firm that maps organizations’ “social capital” and identifies critical participants within social networks. Stephenson teaches social network theory as part of the MBA program at Erasmus University in the Netherlands. She also offers insight into social networks in corporations and how to manage them.

What are workplace social networks, and why are they important to business leaders?

Social networks are the formal and informal bonds through which people communicate and get work done—the invisible bonds of trust and the “water cooler” relationships. These networks stand apart from hierarchical structures that define authority, such as organizational charts. Together, social networks and hierarchy form a company’s culture.

Stephenson's Seven Questions That Reveal Social Networks

  • With whom do you exchange information—face to face or virtually—to get your job done?
  • With whom do you collaborate to discuss new ideas?
  • To whom do you turn for expertise and advice on work-related issues?
  • With whom do you collaborate to fix what's broken and improve the way things get done?
  • To whom do you go to get decisions made quickly?
  • With whom do you spend time discussing what's going on around the workplace?
  • With whom do you discuss where the company is headed in the future?

By mapping the repeating patterns within social networks, business leaders can understand relationships and identify employees with high social capital—the company’s collective knowledge and the ability to bring people together and generate new ideas.

Do social networks show repeating patterns?

There are three types of patterns—or network “roles”: hubs, gatekeepers and pulsetakers. Hubs are the center of a hub-and-spoke system. If I’m a hub, I’m good friends with 100 people in a starburst pattern. Gatekeepers are strategically connected people—the bridge between two powerful people in different divisions, for instance. Pulsetakers are behind the scenes and observe all. They are acquainted with 100 powerful people throughout the organization.

How are social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, related to social networks?

Social media are different from social networks. Social media are about collecting and connecting at a superficial level—collecting “friends” on Facebook. Social networks are about trust and powerful relationships, mainly face to face.

How can HR professionals identify social networks?

You need to make social network maps and analyze the results. To make a map, you ask employees only seven questions through a validated online methodology. Never ask who they trust; you won’t get an honest answer. Instead, the seven questions—such as “Who do you work with?” and “Who would you go to for career advice?”—help evaluate the types of trust employees have in different people. When you go to someone with a new idea, you trust that person more than if you just want a transaction. Then, we color-code the networks, mathematically correlate them with other questions and visually map the data.

We can accurately diagnose cultural health based on aggregated answers. Cultural health is a set of normative ranges of readings much like you get on your annual physical. Like an annual physical, these tests have been developed from large amounts of data (collected by NetForm) that have been correlated with productivity, profitability and employee engagement and benchmarked by industry. If an organization’s scores fall outside a “healthy” normative range—either too high or too low—it can suggest knowledge disconnects, gaps or misalignments depending on which networks are being evaluated and correlated. At a high level, the diagnosis is highly predictive as to whether a culture is highly networked, siloed, innovative or bound by its own legacy. At a more detailed level, the diagnosis can identify “unusual” connectors that facilitate change, bridge gaps, integrate across functions and solve problems.

What can happen when HR professionals don’t pay attention to social networks?

You can lose a lot of opportunities and competitive advantages. In so many instances, HR professionals have a “sense” that something is wrong with an organization’s culture, but they have no objective or accurate diagnosis. When Merrill Lynch was assessing its global competencies, its HR executive came to me and said, “Things don’t feel right culturally.” We scanned the networks and saw where the gaps were. We saw this huge star pattern coming out of New York, indicative of the founding legacy, but the Asian countries were worlds unto themselves. They weren’t working with other Asian countries. As soon as she saw she had gaps, she knew what to do to fix them. She sent a key communicator from her Japanese team to the Asian offices. The solution was in her toolkit; it was the diagnosis she was missing. By measuring social networks, HR professionals can diagnose and treat what ails their companies.

How can HR professionals use the “invisible trust influences” of social networks to enact change?

The conventional wisdom is most mergers and acquisitions fail because of cultural differences. But, if HR professionals know the hubs and major communicators in their organizations, they can blend cultures more effectively by using these cultural catalysts. They can discuss changes with the hubs or involve them in new initiatives. The hubs will spread the message throughout the organization. And people will buy into it because they heard it from hubs, people they trust. Gatekeepers connect one part of the organization to another, so they can support the message or choose to block it. Make sure the gatekeepers are on your side. Once the initiative is rolled out, do a quality control check with some of the pulsetakers to see if the message was accurately received.

What role do social networks play in the future of HR?

HR professionals have an abundance of transactional duties that can fill a workday. But understanding and applying social networks is a strategic tool, not a transactional tool. HR executives and generalists are the strategic consultants to the chief executive officer who can quickly identify the unusual suspects—the carriers of knowledge and agents of change within an organization, the individuals with the highest social capital—so they can be recognized and retained. Think of it this way: With proper training, HR specialists are the human capital experts who know how to leverage networks within the company to get work done today and prepare for tomorrow.

The interviewer, a former HR generalist and trainer, is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.

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