Within every organization, we can identify three different types of networks: 1) authority, 2) social/affinity, and 3) performance. We will examine each of these in turn here and why they are of interest/concern to us.

Authority Networks and Authority Connections

[Authority comes from the willingness and agreement of others to follow or adhere to the advice, directives, and decisions of others who are seen to have legitimate power.]

Perhaps the best-known network in an organization is the authority network in which the connections between elements are authority connections. Authority connections are intangible and nondirected connections and indicate who has authority over what area(s) and people by virtue of their position in the hierarchy. Authority connections are intangible in that they are social constructions that must be learned. Indeed, part of the function of titles, signage, office locations, etc. is to indicate (remind us?) who has authority and the area(s) over which they have authority. In the absence of such knowledge and indicators, we could not tell simply by looking at people in a room as to who has authority or over what.

Positional authority networks are traditionally modeled or represented as a hierarchical “tree” network where the nodes represent formal or designated individuals or groups in their respective positions of authority, e.g., who reports to whom . Positional authority connections are intangible and use the ”altitude” of each node in the tree network to indicate the position’s relative authority ranking – high, middle, or low. The name assigned to each node designates the position, e.g., VP, Director of Research, Chairperson of Accounting, and/or the area or domain over which it has authority, e.g., marketing, computer graphics.

Positional authority connections are nondirected. Positional authority is “attached to” or “located in” the position, not the individual in the position, and does not move between positions other than when specifically delegated. Positional authority gives the position occupant the legitimate right (according to the rules, regulations, traditions and customs of the organization) to make decisions, authorize and direct action, and allocate resources to other positions that report to them. In this respect, positional authority is a type of resource that adheres to a position and any person who occupies the position can use the authority. 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. It is by virtue of her having positional authority that she can give you the assignment. But her authority does not move from her to you, the assignment does. Her authority is “over there” in her position and her authority provides the legitimacy for giving you the assignment. ?

Social Networks and Affinity Connections

A second type of network is a social network where nodes in the network are connected by affinity connections. Affinity connections are intangible connections that show the existence of some type of personal, informal, or social connection, such as “liking”, “friendship”, or “trust”. Although affinity typically refers to a strong liking or attraction to someone or something, we consider affinity to range from strong positive through neutral to strong negative. In this way of thinking, each of us has an affinity connection to everyone in an organization. If I don’t know you or know about you, I have a neutral (neither positive nor negative) affinity toward you.

Affinity connections are nondirected because there is nothing that moves on the connection itself. If I like or trust you, that is an orientation, belief, or disposition I have toward you, but trust doesn’t move from me to you. My trust, friendship or liking for you resides over here with me and does not itself move. Yes, trust, friendship and liking may inform my interactions with and reactions to you, but it is what I say or provide in our interactions that moves between us, not the “friendship”, “liking” or “trust”. Affinity connections, therefore, are between individuals or groups not positions. I may like and trust my boss, but my liking and trust is with respect to the person who is my boss, not the position she occupies. The picture below shows a social/affinity network where the connection indicates who people know.

A social/affinity network

Wait a minute!

You claim that both authority and social networks have nondirectional connections because nothing moves on those connections? But how can that be? My boss gives me projects and assignments to do or asks me for things and people at work over whom I have no authority provide me with information and assistance in getting my work done? Doesn’t this show that things move on the connections in the authority and social network?

No, it doesn’t. Yes, of course bosses give assignments and ask for things and colleagues and co-workers ask for and provide information and assistance. But the assignments and assistance are not authority or affinity moving. The assignment, in the form of a request or directive, is what moves from your boss to you. And, in the case of colleagues and co-workers, it is the specific types and forms of information (e.g., reports, briefs) and assistance (e.g., advice, suggestions) that moves from them to you. In fact, bosses, colleagues, and co-workers can and do provide and deliver things you need to accomplish your work even when there is low or negative affinity between you and them. No doubt there are people at work you don’t think much of that you nevertheless do things for.

What we are proposing is that neither authority nor affinity connections are what gets things done in organizations. In fact, we propose that performance in an organization depends on the quality of the deliverable connections in a performance network.  

Performance Networks and Deliverable Connections

A performance network is an arrangement of nodes representing the individuals and groups that directly participate in the accomplishment of a specified goal or objective. By arrangement of nodes is meant all the individuals and groups internal or external to the organization that contribute to accomplishing an organization goal or objective and the deliverable connections between them. In a performance network, what connects entities are intangible and directed deliverable connections. They are intangible because they are social constructions that must be learned and maintained. Every new employee goes through a learning or socialization period in which they “learn their job”: who they need to interact with to accomplish their work, what they need to provide or receive, and in what time frame. Deliverable connections are directed in that they indicate the direction in which deliverables in the form of specific products, services, and communications move between entities. Any time there is a product delivered (e.g., a report), a service rendered (e.g., data analysis), or a communication delivered (e.g., request) to another node that is needed by that node to accomplish its goal relevant work, there is a deliverable connection in a performance network. The work in an organization and what it accomplishes is a direct function of the quality of the deliverable connections in its performance networks.

You “job”, for example, may require sending and receiving very specific and defined products, services, and communications to and from vendors, suppliers, officials, and customers who are external to your organization as well to numerous individuals and groups within different areas of your organization. Some of these individuals may be people that have more or less authority than you, people over whom you have no authority, and some may be people you like or dislike, trust or distrust. But regardless of their authority or your affinity with them, it is the products, services, and communications they deliver to and receive from you that determines your and their performance. As stated previously, “…the essential productive properties of a node (i.e., team, group or organization) does not arise from the node itself, but from its productive [i.e., deliverable] connections between it and other nodes.”

Yes, a node must have the personal capability to do the work, but capability is insufficient if they do not receive what they need to do that work. This quote proposes that there is another factor that is relevant to a node’s performance: the quality of its deliverable connections with other nodes.

The “Mingling” of Networks

Of these three networks, we are most likely familiar with the authority and social networks and are likely to think that getting things done in organizations depends on authority and affinity. As a result, we tend to focus on some aspect of these as explanations for performance. Most of us are unfamiliar with performance networks and deliverable connections and so we obviously don’t consider them as explanations for performance. This is particularly the case given that the connections in authority, social, and performance networks are all intangible. If you walk around an organization, you will see people working alone or in groups at various places, but you will not see the authority, affinity, or deliverable connections between them. But that they are invisible does not mean they do not exist, they do. And to make things a bit more challenging, the three types of networks exist simultaneously and get intermingled, and this intermingling can result in a fundamental misunderstanding of what contributes to individual, group, and organization performance. In fact, this misunderstanding results in putting our attention on the qualities, characteristics, and attributes of the elements themselves and in our attempts to improve performance, i.e., “managing people”, without regard for or attention to deliverable connections. For example, we think if we had more authority, better relationships with people, or simply better people to work with, we we/they would perform at a higher level. This view, however, ignores the role of deliverable connections which have to be designed and maintained.

So how are the three networks intermingled? Let’s look at a case in which intermingling occurs – a worker and his boss. The two are in an authority network and as well as a social network where there is some level of affinity between them. They may like/dislike each other, trust/distrust each other, etc. But, and this is the key point, they are also in a performance network in which there is some organizationally relevant goal(s) or objective(s) to be achieved. What makes the performance network significant is that it is the only network of the three (authority, social, performance) in which things move between nodes. Authority and social networks have intangible and nondirected connections, meaning that nothing moves on those connections. When a boss makes a request of a direct report, the request is a deliverable in the performance network. Yes, the boss has authority, and this authority may be a factor in how the direct report responds to the request, but the request nevertheless occurs in the performance network, not the authority network. For example, she may stop by his workspace, talk to him about a new project she asks him to lead, which he accepts, and then she leaves. Now, the authority she has as his boss allows her to ask him to lead the project, but the asking is a communication deliverable in the performance network and it is this deliverable which sets things in motion. His acceptance of the assignment is also a communication deliverable and creates an agreement between him and her. Transactions such as this occur all the time between a boss and direct reports regardless of the affinity connection between them.

As lead of this new project, let’s assume the worker has agreed to provide his boss with periodic updates (communication deliverables) regarding progress. When she gets the updates, however, they are sometimes late, incomplete, or inaccurate. In many cases when these performance lapses occur, managers assume the issue is with the element itself and focus on altering their behavior. They may have “discussions” with the person involved in which they explain the importance of the project, indicate there could be unfavorable consequences if it happens again, or some other action they think will alter behavior. In this respect, the assumption is that the performance issue resides “over there, with them” and that the only thing to do is “manage them” and “make them accountable”. Hence, they engage in “managing people” which, unfortunately, ignores that the key to performance in a performance network are the quality of the deliverable connections, not the elements themselves.

Current approaches to management put emphasis on the authority and social/affinity networks as the way to “get things done”. What they both ignore is that individual and group performance is a direct function of the reliability of the deliverable connections in performance networks. If the deliverable connections are unreliable, either because they were never fully designed, were not maintained, or both, then performance will suffer. Unfortunately, because most people do not know about performance networks and deliverable connections, their only recourse for dealing with performance issues is to rely on authority and social/affinity networks, neither of which are equipped to do so. This also means that when and where performance is good, they attribute the performance not to the quality of the deliverable connections in the performance network, but to some aspect of the authority or social/affinity network.