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Q&A with Professor Karen Stephenson

First published July 07, 2003

Social Network Analysis (SNA) has been blogrolled a lot recently. SNA methods and tools are a hot topic. Whether for analyzing the spread of a virus or the spread of corporate rumors, interest in SNA is at an all time high. A few days ago, I was fortunate to have a conversation with Professor Karen Stephenson, early pioneer and world-renowned expert in the field. I took the opportunity to interview her on SNA topics around learning networks. Here is the edited version of that interview.

elearningpost: Business oriented Social Network Analysis (SNA) is getting a lot of media attention these days. Information Architects, Knowledge Management practitioners, and even Interior Designers are looking to this technique to better understand their problem spaces. But, SNA methodologies haven't changed much over the years. So why the sudden interest?

Karen: It's getting a lot of attention largely because of the major catastrophic event that punctuated everyoneÕs equilibrium -- 9/11. That was a monumental moment. People realized that human networks could undermine anything. My mantra--we are not fighting a nation, we are fighting a network--was later picked up by President Bush to describe the US stance.

Photo of Professor Karen Stephenson

Although the event happened in the US, people around the world got reoriented to the notion that networks are a powerful form of human organization. This event pushed an embryonic but growing field--SNA--into the collective consciousness.

People wanted to know that if human networks are a thing to be understood then what is the methodology by which we could understand them with.

With 9/11 people realized "why" networks were important, now they want to understand "how" to detect or diagnose them. That's where SNA--the traditional, academic approach to analyzing or trying to measure human networks--came into the foreground.

elearningpost: Do you think the Internet had something to do with it?

Karen: People have been using the Internet for sometime now but you didn't see it emerge dramatically--there was no catastrophic event that drove people's awareness of it.

Nevertheless, there is a distinction between human network and a technological network. Human networks have a life of their own quite independent of technological networks.

Although I think that the Internet has played and continues to play an important part in growing the awareness of a global web or network, at this point, I still don't think it is as far reaching as it could be. It will take more time for the Internet to grow and become a way of life. Even so, this network is very different from a human network. We are talking apples and oranges here.

As an early pioneer in this field I have been talking about human networks for a very long time--20-25 years. People knowingly nod at what I am saying, they hear my words, they understand the meaning, but it is only because of recent events over the last two years that they have quickened with a deep vicarious awareness.

elearningpost: You've stated that there are six varieties of knowledge networks in an organization. One of them is the learning network. Can you explain this network?

Karen: A Learning Network is an important contra-distinction to the other networks. Taken by itself it means something, it can stand alone, but it has greater meaning when taken together with the other knowledge networks within a community or within a culture.

In any network, relationships stand in sharp contrast to what we might call a normal disinterested transaction. If I want to get routine work done I will call Joe or Jill over here to try to get some piece of information passed along and in exchange for that maybe get some more information from them.

I don't really care whom I'm interacting with--I don't need to know them personally, I can, but it doesn't really matter--I just need to pass that information along. It is part of my job and I need to get it done--it is a transaction--plain and simple. And these kind of transactions don't necessarily require underlying trust to "grease the skids" to smooth things along.

In practice, machines perform disinterested transactions. But because humans have inefficiently adopted machines there are a lot of gaps filled with humans transacting when, in reality, a machine could probably do it.

There are all kinds of reasons for why this happens and why it does not change - regarding to workers council, labor unions, social and political policies, and industrial policies around the world, but we won't go there in this interview. Let's just say that there are countless disinterested exchanges occurring every day which fill the void among human beings--all in the name of work.

So now, what if you're going about your business doing your work and somebody comes up with a bright idea or you come up with a bright idea! With whom are you going to talk to or share this information?

Are you going to talk to this disinterested person over here with whom you have to do routine work with--No. You are going to find and seek colleagues you trust--someone you have worked with in the past or someone you are currently working with but with whom you have shared past confidences. In other words, with someone you have a stronger sense of relationship than a disinterested transaction.

There is something else going on when you want to find people with whom you want to share your idea with. You look for some other kind of meaning, not necessarily more meaning, just other kinds of meaning, which are imbued with a human quality called trust.

Recollect some of your mistakes or mess-ups. With whom did you share these stories? With someone you have a deep form of trust because you are taking painful realities and trying to implement or correct them for improving your future.

That's a Learning Network. And it really requires tremendous amounts of trust. I make mistakes all the time, but I don't share it with the world. I share it with only my closest colleagues.

The Learning Network is just that in an organization. Trust is the medium through which important knowledge--the message--is passed. And if you can understand where the leverage is within that trust network you can use it for the benefit of the entire organization.

It is a good thing to diagnose such a network. It is also a good thing to understand it. Understanding it will help you relate the findings back to some past event that may be tied to some present undertaking and thereby provide fresh insight.

elearningpost: You mentioned that trust is the medium--the container-- through which knowledge is passed, How would you relate initiatives such as office space design to building trust?

Karen: I like the way you phrased the question to me. When I said that trust is the medium and not the message, it was in the sense that trust is a container for certain types of knowledge. Now let's enlarge the scope beyond the focus on human relationships to the environment where these relationships are grown.

We are surrounded by environmental artifacts--past containers or representations of knowledge. Our environment, our workplace, and how we shape it, is another example of how we manage knowledge.

Now, you can take away the container or make the container so small, so dark, and so dismal and miserable that you can reduce human existence to something that is nasty, brutish and short. If you can do this, then it stands to reason that the opposite is also true--altering an environment in certain ways to enhance learning and creativity.

By the way, creativity and learning are entirely different networks. Once diagnosed, what you do for learning is very different from what you would do for creativity.

You can change different parts of the environment so that you can become more collaborative or more solitary for different types of work activity.

I have devised a formula--a calculus for culture, if you will--that can determine when a culture needs to enhance its creativity or its learning aspect.

We know what this means in terms of working knowledge. Now we work with architects and designers to affect these variables through the manipulation of space.

Note that that space is a contributing environmental factor--an influence--to the equation and not a causal factor. And the human network is a driving social factor, not an environmental factor. I've helped design companies like Steelcase to realize a simplified calculus that supports culture and helps them to better match their products for the user.

elearningpost: In a recent Stanford Business Magazine article, Innovators Navigate Around Cliques-- a researcher reported that, "Contrary to common assumptions, the evidence suggests that in many cases strong social ties do not provide significant new information, so it helps not to be embedded in them". Are certain types of networks more desirable than other types?

Karen: It is not the first time this idea has been out there--of course--and it's not the first time it got published either.

Trust is an oppressive power and can stagnate innovation, forcing people to forego more innovative work and instead focus their efforts on "fitting in" and belonging to a network. Sometimes if you have an idea that differs from that of others or the reigning concept of the moment, you will appear as the nail that sticks out and needs to gets hammered back down. This can be painful!

But there is a dark side to trust. You can have too much of a good thing if you will. You could trust too deeply, too much, and when that happens you commune, you change your behavior, you become like them, and you lose your sense of a larger context--one might say objectivity--and then you are not going to be innovative. Real innovation occurs not in the center, but in the periphery. For innovators to survive, they must go around these clique-ish roadblocks.

elearningpost: How is your Hubs, Gatekeepers, and Pulsetakers different from Malcolm Gladwell's Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen?

Karen: While Malcolm's definitions are drawn from intuitive observations, mine are mathematically derived. When I met Malcolm I told him that what he was picking up intuitively at an informal level was indeed this underlying pattern about how networks are structured.

Hubs, Gatekeepers, and Pulsetakers are precise mathematical models, which do not correlate one-to-one with Malcolm Gladwell's definitions. But, for getting the message out to the general public, they can be mixed without much harm.

elearningpost: Initially, MindMapping, a creative way to brainstorm and problem solve, was an expert-driven practice. The emergence of softwares like MindManager took the practice to the common manager. Can we expect a similar evolution for SNA software?

Karen: SNA is not yet commoditized but pretty soon we're going to be commoditizing this approach. At this point it is still a high-level executive managerial tool.

One has to be careful about it though, because a commoditized tool like this in the hands of an uneducated user who does not appreciate this knowledge can cause serious damage.

I believe that it will become commoditized and when it does people will be ready. They will handle it responsibly. Humans do have a certain amount of good sense and they will not take something and abuse it. People see the value to be gained in applying a tool that is there to help them.

elearningpost: Do you think that future SNA software will offer more visualization tools? How important is visualization to SNA?

Karen: Yes and No. I'm a visual thinker myself. And if anybody defaulted to visual thinking, it would be me. Regarding SNA, I do use the visuals but I also use and rely upon the sheer mathematics of it.

You think differently with visuals and you think differently with a table of numbers. You learn different things and you need to look at them both. We need to keep that in mind when working with people of all sorts, we need to be open to hybrid forms of the methodology--that is, using this kind of visualization with the mathematical measures in a diagnostic readout that will be relevant for business or for anybody managing an organization.

Right now, it is all too customized. There is no standardized approach, as it is still a growing field. It's morphing and changing and it isn't mature enough, yet. But the field will become mature in another two or so years, and then there will be an agreed upon standard that can be used for organizational diagnostic forms.


Dr. Karen Stephenson is president of NetForm and a professor of management. She teaches at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. She has combined a legacy of management and 25 years of research to publish and practice with regard to the implementation of transparent technologies that enable businesses to change. She helps legacy firms to measure (and make tangible) the intangible assets of human and social capital as well as measure and insure against the associated risks of that asset.

Karen Stephenson received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Harvard University, an M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Utah, and a B.A. in Art and Chemistry from Austin College.

She can be reached by e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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