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Promoting Institutional Change Through Investigating Network Structure

In his article, It Takes A Village: Change Management As Community Building, Forbes contributor Carsten Tams uses network theory to dispel the notion that a tight hierarchical structure is inducive to introducing change through an organization. Instead, a less organized but denser structure is more effective.

A typical organizational structure used in many organizations, such as large companies, is the hierarchical tree. Each node in the tree represents a member of the organization, and the directed links represent the direction of authority. The idea is that each node in the tree will only have one incoming link, meaning that it will take orders from only one other node. The tree is organized by levels, with the nodes at each level representing the same level of authority. Nodes at the same level are not connected in anyway, and nodes only have connections with nodes one level higher or lower. This structure results in a long chain of command from the top node to bottom nodes. It appears neat and efficient because there is a clear line of command and communication. However, further investigation using network theory reveals many shortcomings.

One short coming is that communication is only one way due to the directional links. This means that ideas cannot ever diffuse in the upward or horizontal direction. The lack of communication frequently leads to what the textbook referred to as pluralistic ignorance when change demands collective action. In other words, members of an organization might not be motivated to join a cause for change if they are uncertain if others will also participate. Moreover, communication from the upper levels to the lower levels could be impeded because messages need to get through several levels to reach the lower levels. By then, the message might have lost its original intent or significance. Due to these characteristics, a tree structure impedes the progression of a cascade, particularly for lower level nodes seeking change.

Tams suggested that to promote institutional change, more directional links should be added across nodes no matter of the level of authority, thus creating a denser network. His argument is that a denser network makes it easier to reach the threshold number of nodes required to jump start a cascade. Intuitively, if a node seeking change fails to convince one of its connections, it has more connections that it can attempt to persuade as well. In addition, denser connection across and within levels promotes change based on collective action due to the prevalence of common knowledge, which is each node’s position on issues. While we learned in class that clusters are natural obstacles to cascades, this theory applies to situations where adoption of an idea comes from outside the cluster. In contrast, a dense cluster is quick to pick up a cascade when internal nodes adopt an idea.

Connecting theory to real world application, Tams listed concrete suggestions for how to increase network density in an organization. For example, managers and leaders should provide channels of discussion so that ideas could diffuse within levels and towards higher levels. Companies can also provide networking platforms, such as social media and networking events, on which nodes of all levels can mingle and form connections.



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