Stop Managing People involves a shift in focus. A shift that is based in network theory and the realization that organizations are constituted by networks. Networks come from the study of graphs in mathematics in which attention is given to the graphical arrangements of discrete elements and the specific connections of relations between them. These discrete elements can include concepts (an abstract idea or generalization) such as a family, groups or teams, or projects1; locations such as New York City, Paris, Italy, or Australia; positions such as Senator, Vice President, or volunteer; physical objects such as computers, cars, buildings, or specific individuals (e.g., Dave); or some combination of these. Whatever the discrete elements involved, they are represented in a network diagram or graph by “nodes” generally in the form of circles.

The specific connections that exist between the elements in a network are indicated by “links” in the form of lines. The existence of a line between two nodes in a network indicates that there is some kind of connection or relationship between them. In some cases, the connections between elements are tangible and have a physical presence that is perceptible by touch or sight such as the cords connecting computers, or the bridge connecting a city on one side of a river to the city on the other side. Tangible connections are evident in the following picture:

Tangible Connections

In other cases, the connections are intangible and have no physical presence as in the case of the connection “mother” between a woman and a child or “brother” between two siblings. We may infer such a connection from the way a woman and child interact or what they say to each other, but there is no perceptible physical thing between them that connects them. One way to appreciate intangible links is to consider the group of people sitting around the table in the picture below. As a stranger at the table, we would not know the various intangible connections among them. We wouldn’t know if someone was a boss to someone else, if any of them were close friends, if any of them were related, or if this was a team or simply an ad hoc group hanging out. We could only know any of the various intangible connections if they were pointed out to us. Now, if we observed for a while, we might speculate about, hypothesize, or infer what some of the intangible connections might be, but we would not see them and, unless and until they were confirmed, the connections would simply be our interpretation or assessment. Unlike tangible connections between elements, intangible connections are social constructions that are invisible and must be learned.

Intangible connections

The Shift in Focus: From Nodes to Lines

So why the concern with or focus on the links or connections between elements in a network? There are two reasons. First, there can be no node in a network that is not connected to at least one other node. In a network diagram, there are no “stand alone” or “independent” nodes, i.e., no element in a network is an island onto itself. To be part of a network means that an element has at least one connection with at least one other node in the network. Second, and more importantly, the ability of a node to perform depends on the connections it has with other nodes in the network. The significance of this point cannot be overemphasized

Organizations are constituted by networks. The best known network is the hierarchy of authority, but it is only one network and not even the most important one for getting things done. Let me repeat that. The hierarchy of authority network is only one type of network in an organization and it is not even the most important one for accomplishing goals and objectives. To understand why this is the case, we have to engage in “network thinking”. In a hierarchy of authority, the elements are specific positions such as VP of Marketing in a business organization, Bishop in a religious organization, or Regional Director in a volunteer organization.

Network Components

The invisibility of intangible connections is an issue in organizations because it is easy to see the “nodes”, e.g., specific individuals and what they do and say, but not the intangible connections between them. As a result, people don’t look at the connections between elements (other than affinity) as a source of what does and doesn’t get done in organizations. Rather, they tend to look at the attributes, qualities, and characteristics of the people themselves and engage with those in an attempt to get things done, i.e., they try to “manage” people.

We can also distinguish between directed and nondirected connections or links between elements in a network. A directed link is one that shows the direction in which something moves between two elements where the direction of that movement, one-way or two-way, is indicated by an arrow head on the line. A nondirected connection, on the other hand, indicates that the elements are connected, but that there is no form of movement between the elements. Nondirected connections have no arrow heads on them.

Finally, we can talk about the quality of connections. Social network theorists talk about whether a connection or “tie” is weak or strong. One way to conceptualize this is by comparing the two bridges below. The rope bridge on the left is “weak” whereas the bridge on the right is “strong”. It is strong in the sense that it is made of stronger materials and carry a larger volume and greater weight of traffic than the rope bridge. As a result, the bridge on the right can accomplish more faster than the rope bridge on the left. Although the rope bridge may be a high quality rope bridge appropriate for carrying low volume and low weight foot traffic, it is of insufficient quality for high volume and weight motorized traffic. In a similar way, we can talk about the quality or strength of connections between elements in a network. Where we are interested in high reliable performance, we will be interested in building and maintaining high quality connections between elements,

Summary: Network Elements

Within a network, discrete elements are connected with other discrete elements through directed (arrows) or nondirected (lines with no arrows) tangible (physical) or intangible (invisible non physical) connections. Directed connections indicate that something moves between elements, whereas, nondirected connections indicate that nothing moves. Tangible connections means there is something physical that connects elements, whereas, with intangible connections there is nothing physical connecting the elements. Finally, connections can vary in their quality (high/low) or strength (strong/weak) with high quality or strong connections being more capable of supporting elements than low quality or weak connections. If we are interested in performance and accomplishment, then we will be interested in high quality or strong connections since it is these that will make it possible for the elements involved to perform and accomplish.

Types of Networks in Organizations

Within every organization there are four different types of networks: 1) authority, 2) social/affinity, and 3) performance. We will examine each of them in turn here and why they are of interest/concern.

Authority Network

The best known network in organizations is the authority network. An authority network is generally referred to as the hierarchy of authority and is depicted in organization charts and tables of organization as a “tree” network in which the elements in the network are positions. A “tree” network is one in which the network elements and connections branch downward, upward or outward from a single or central node (e.g., a tree trunk) as illustrated in the diagrams below.

What is of value to note is that each of the preceding tree diagrams shows the same connections among the elements. There are no new or different connections simply because we change the orientation of the network. If you did not know what the elements were or what the connections signified, the three network illustrations provide the same information. However, once we add the idea of “hierarchy”, as in the hierarchy of authority, then we have a different understanding of the networks shown because now there is a “top” (“higher”) and a “bottom” (“lower”) component. In the first diagram, there is one element at the “top” and three on the “bottom”. In the second diagram, there are three at the “top” and one at the “bottom”. And in the third diagram, there is one element at the “top” and one at the “bottom”. We know this not because of the elements or the connections themselves, but because in a hierarchy, we start at the top and work down where each level in the network represents a “lower” ranking. In an organization, the lower the level a position is in the hierarchy of authority, the more restrictive the range of authority it has relative to the position above it.

In a hierarchy of authority, the elements (positions) are connected by nondirected connections. If you look at any diagram of a hierarchy of authority or table of organization, you will notice the lines do not have arrows on them. Why is that? It is because the connections show who has authority “over” whom, not what moves between the elements: authority does not move. Authority is something that is located in a particular position, like the position title, that gives the position the “right” to make particular decisions and authorize and direct action to other positions who are connected to and below them in the hierarchy. In this respect, authority is a particular type of resource that a position possesses and is not something that is itself transferred or moves between elements except when it is specifically delegated [which happens in performance networks]. When you meet with your boss, for example, she may give you an assignment, but the assignment is not authority moving from her to you. Her authority is “over there” in her position and it provides the legitimacy to her giving you the assignment.

Not only are the connections in a hierarchy of authority nondirected, they are also intangible. There are no wires, strings, or other physical connections between people in an authority networks that shows people are connected. One has to learn who has authority and with respect to what. Indeed, part of the function of titles, signage, office locations, etc. is to indicate (remind us?) who has authority. In the absence of such knowledge and indicators, you could not tell simply by looking at people in a room (like the picture above) who has more or less authority or over what their authority extends.

Social/Affinity Network

A second type of network in organizations is a social or affinity network which shows various personal, informal connections, such as liking, friendship or trust between elements. Although the elements in such networks are typically individuals, they can also be groups or larger systems such as when one group or unit in an organization has negative feelings toward other groups or units or when countries consider other countries to be “hostile” or an “enemy”. Below is an illustration of a social/affinity network.

As with authority networks, elements in a social/affinity network are connected by intangible, nondirected connections. You can see in the picture above there are no arrows on the various connections, indicating they are nondirectional, and there are no physical connections that are connecting elements to each other. As with authority, such things as liking or trust don’t move between elements in a social/affinity network. Rather, they are feelings, considerations, or conclusions elements have about other elements, e.g., “I don’t trust Samantha”, but they are not things that actually move or travel between elements; I can’t deliver something called trust to you though I can trust you.

Wait a minute!

You say that both authority and social/affinity networks have nondirectional connections because nothing moves in those networks? But how can that be since my boss is always giving me things to do or asking me for things and my friends at work are always providing me with information or assistance?

This is true. Bosses do give assignments and ask for things and friends do provide information and assistance. But the assignments and assistance are not part of the authority or social/affinity networks, they are part of another network – the performance network.

Performance Network

A performance network is the only type of organization network in which some “thing” moves between the elements in the network. What are those “things”? They are goal or task relevant deliverables – the products, services, and communications that people need in order to accomplish their work and achieve the organization’s goals and objectives. In a performance network, the connections are directional deliverable connections where the arrows at the end of the connection indicates the direction in which deliverables move.