We recently hosted Dr Karen Stephenson at Nesta for an event called 'Deciphering Trust' with the rather enticing sub-title 'How cigarette breaks, gossip and other informal networks influence your capacity to innovate'. The feedback from the event was excellent and possibly the best we've had, from all of the many events I've been involved with since I've been at Nesta. Check out the webcasts from the event here, and various pictures on flickr here and a good follow up article about it here.
I learned a lot from the event and can't begin to distill it all here now, but I do want to expand on one point she made about the complex interplay between hierarchies and informal trust based networks. She described how there are three ties that typically bind any professional group as follows:
All of these ties are necessary but we tend to overestimate the importance of hierarchies and underestimate the importance of trust. This is partly because hierarchies are so obvious (immortalised through the organisational chart for example) whereas trust based networks are far less visible but no less powerful. The analysis she has done on many organisations (from multinational companies to terrorist networks) is to look at the people you go to for information, ideas, advice, socialising etc, and map that information. These different networks will all be different though will probably have overlaps. For instance, a high-trust network is the career advice network and may be completely different to your innovation network, where you go to for ideas. Looking at how these networks evolve is particularly interesting before and after mergers and aquisitions, most of which fail, as they neglect the role of trusted networks.
Also, increasingly we all interact with, or work with multiple connected hierarchies, called heterarchies, which are connected by informal trust based networks. Managing heterarchies is the challenge of our times and we increasingly need to understand how these work if we are ever going to take open and collaborative innovation to scale. It's certainly our experience where building trust (sometimes through third parties) is vital to enable collaboration to happen, and is often overlooked.
Finally, like Gladwell, she categorises three primary types of 'actors' in a social network, hubs, pulsetakers, and gatekeepers. On a personal note, I realise that I naturally tend to be a 'hub-like' but increasingly, whilst this is fun and interesting, it's not necessarily where i need to be right now and probably want to migrate to be more like a pulsetaker. And top tips on how to migrate from one to the other?