Intra-Organizational Anthropology

Came across a 2001 article by Reed Johnson, originally published in the Los Angeles Times, about Dr. Karen Stephenson: “Cracking the company code”, as reprinted in the Montreal Gazette, September 10, 2001, E2.

A researcher who applied concepts from anthropology to organizations:

Her message? Next time you slip into your cozy office cubicle, don’t forget to bring your hip boots. The workplace can be a swamp of betrayals, sneak attacks, feral co-workers, slash-and-burn bosses and other nasty surprises. That why “trust relationships”, as Stephenson calls them, should be recognized and nurtured as the gold standard of innovative organizations…

Stephenson…contends that most organizations are marked by three behavioural patterns, as regimented as baboon grooming rituals. These derive from three groups of archetypal workers, known as “hubs”, “gatekeepers” and “pulse-takers”, classified according to the nature and number of their “trust relationships” with colleagues.

Hubs are employees with the most direct ties to co-workers. Gatekeepers are more self-aware versions of hubs. They enjoy serving as power brokers and tend to infuse information with their own agenda. Pulse-takers are the least visible. They observe and measure the state of the company and are widely trusted. Some employees might occupy several of these roles, or trade them as their careers evolve.

Stephenson’s research identifies the members of each group in an organization. Using models first conceptualized by mathematical theorist Frank Harary and structural anthropologist Per Hage, she maps out her findings in interlocking graphs that are easier to decipher than they look. What’s striking is how similar these networks appear, whether depicting an Indian caste system, a corporate bureaucracy or a group of HIV positive men.

Wondered if she was still active. Very much so:

So many crossovers, across disciplines. Yet how much anthropology blended with “traditional” organizational behaviour research? All this parallel newness…

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About brucelarochelle

Practising Lawyer and Part-Time University Instructor (Accounting, Commercial Law, Organizational Behaviour); Part-Time Federal Tribunal Member. Non-practising Chartered Professional Accountant (Chartered Accountant and Certified Management Accountant).
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