Behind the Buzzword of the Influencer, Research Time, 27/04/2015

I’ve still been reading some basic sociological network theory, even though I’ve mostly been blogging for the last few weeks about Chinese philosophy, sci-fi, and my exchange with Steve Fuller. But the final couple of weeks of my college program, no matter how much I tried to space the work out over a longer time, were still pretty packed. So my side reading had to step away from communications simply to give my brain a rest from the intensity.

I know this means that I just said that I read histories of ancient philosophy and argue on the internet about the nature of art for fun. I'm a nerd. You really should have noticed this by now.

Most of typically think of companies as organized
according to a hierarchical structure. And they are. But
most of the actual work is done through individuals
communicating informally and unofficially across
departmental divisions.
The reason I’m reading sociological network theory is to apply it to my communications career. Network theory is incredibly useful for audience analysis, understanding how the people you're communicating with relate to each other and integrate their relationship with you and your organization into their daily lives. 

One field I’d like to work in over this career is internal communications, because these are the information flows throughout an organization that control what it actually does. They constitute a company’s nervous system, and the internal communications workers are metaphorically its spinal column. You have to know everything you can about the activities and cultures of the different parts of an organization, and apply that knowledge to ensuring the harmonious working lives of everyone in it.

Internal communications needs social network theory because the acts of communication among people throughout an organization that actually get work done don’t flow through the channels of reports and orders up and down its hierarchy. It’s in the informal, casual conversations among departments where people actually learn what they need to know to accomplish what they must.

However, it's very difficult to figure out, among all the many casual relationships of a workplace, which ones are the most critical in the activities of the business. Well, you could figure it out if you applied a massive statistical analysis to a data set created from constantly surveilling everyone in the organization without their knowledge. But that’s a little unethical.

I’m not 100% sure a communications practitioner in a company could get away with that. Let alone whether the executives and shareholders would even give you the money.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari were
thinkers who were very influential to me in
how I analyze and understand the power of
transversal communication and activity.
Social network theory and research reveals that the most important people in any organization aren’t the chief executives, even though they get all the press. Executives, especially as they increase in rank and overall responsibility (and most importantly, liability) for a company’s activities, get the press coverage and shoulder the risks of failure. If the ship goes down, they’re supposed to go with it, which I think is why there's such popular outrage when finance execs receive huge severance payouts as their companies fail and thousands lose their jobs.

But analyzing the daily interactions of workers in large organizations shows that executives aren’t the most productive members. Those are workers in middle-ranking positions who personally interact with many other departments to coordinate activity, manage complex projects, and just plain make friends. These people build their reputations all over the company as social network brokers, people able to mobilize people and knowledge* for whatever needs to be done.

* Or in more buzzy corporate language, cognitive resources. Although I'm more a fan of just saying ‘knowledge.’ 

Such a person has been called an influencer, because they influence their peers' opinions and actions. At least this is the term as it was introduced to me at a conference I attended last Fall at Toronto's Centennial College, as I began learning about intellectual trends in the business world. Yet I don't think the term 'influencer' really gets to the heart of how such a position works in internal communications and organizational social networks. A better, if less buzzy, name is the transversal networker.

Influencers are tough to identify because they don't have a special title or office in the organizational hierarchy. They're just someone uses an institutional position that's otherwise innocuous to do the best work in the company. Their relative invisibility is an asset because they build and maintain their relationships to facilitate productive flows within the meat of a company. 

No one else can really do the work of this kind of interstitial networker. I mean, everyone can build relationships and coordinate projects across departmental and hierarchical divisions of a company if they want to. But no one will do it in exactly the same way as anyone else. The skills and personalities of each person are singular, and all the brokerage that an interstitial networker does are through informal relationships. 

One of Deleuze's famous metaphors for how we think
knowledge should work is a tree: the roots are
foundations for the most beautiful growths of leaves.
He emphasized that knowledge really worked as
rhizomes, centreless networks of information flows.
Well, roots can't live without the rhizome fungi
threaded through them.
They can’t be made official, since their power comes from cutting through and skipping over official communications channels. This is the paradoxical challenge of internal corporate communication that I’d love to take on. A core duty is maintaining official channels. Yet exemplary work comes from facilitating these transversal flows and coordinations. That's where the real innovation in any organization comes from.

This is the kind of person I want to be in my business career, and it’s the kind of person we should all want to be. Someone who knows when official channels are required, but also knows their limitations and how to overcome them without neglecting or destroying them. This gets back to the problem I mentioned earlier about how hard these people are to find. Well, when you start acting transversally in an organization, the transversal actors tend to find each other. Transversality encourages innovation, but such activity needs the official frameworks so the interstitial actors have a place to rest and marshal their own resources. 

Complex webs of fungus are necessary to maintain a tree's health, funnelling nutrients throughout its root system. But the fungus needs the roots as a skeleton to give itself form. Transversality and hierarchy are built on opposing principles, but can only live through mutual aid. It’s the most productive conceptual paradox in living systems.

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