The Company You Keep

Adam Kleinbaum's latest look at employee social networks suggests those who follow nontraditional career paths may be more in the know.

Adam Kleinbaum's latest look at employee social networks suggests those who follow nontraditional career paths may be more in the know.

Knowledge, as we all know, is power. But getting knowledge to the right place at the right time within a complex organization can also mean the difference between a well-run company and one that founders. To ensure the smooth flow of information, businesses rely on "brokers," individuals who use their professional ties to transmit information to other individuals and departments where it is needed.

The question is, How do employees develop networks that allow them to be effective brokers, and how can a company encourage that development? While many researchers have looked into the role that networks play in helping employees advance, few have examined how employees’ career histories develop the networks they rely upon to broker information. That is due in part to the challenges of mapping out an individual’s network. The traditional way to document the complex spiderweb of interactions is to ask people to name those with whom they regularly interact. The problem, however, is that people tend to leave off far-flung members of their network who could play an important part in brokering information across wide gaps in the company.

In a new study, Adam Kleinbaum, an assistant professor of business administration at Tuck, devised a novel way around this omission by using company emails to paint a true picture of employee networks. Working with an information-technology firm, Kleinbaum obtained millions of email headers of some 30,000 employees at two different periods in 2006 and 2008, showing not only how they communicate but also how their connections changed over time. By pairing this with human-resources data showing each employee’s full career history, he was able to analyze how their career trajectories over time influenced the network they eventually created.

This enabled Kleinbaum to confirm a long-held hypothesis: that those with more diverse career histories were more likely to have networks that bridge the institutional holes that separate different departments and categories of employees. Less intuitive, perhaps, is that employees with nontraditional career paths—for example, someone who moved among sales, manufacturing, and marketing—were even more likely to become brokers. Traditional management theory might predict that these individuals, whom Kleinbaum labels "misfits," would lack the close, trust-based connections required to effectively broker information among their colleagues. Instead, he found that their potential lack of legitimacy was overshadowed by the strength of their far-flung connections, which allowed them to bring unique information to the table. "When someone makes a common transition, it’s true that that gives them access to information through the people they know, but those bridges end up being redundant," says Kleinbaum. That’s because many of their immediate colleagues will also have similar connections. By contrast, he says, "If someone makes a more unusual transition, fewer people will have access to those same bridging ties."

In addition to exploring who is likely to develop the large and diverse networks that allow them to be brokers, Kleinbaum also investigated how those networks come about. A substantial body of previous research has proposed a "human capital" theory to explain brokerage—that by passing through a large number of job functions, an employee becomes knowledgeable about how the company works and knows where to go to find the information he or she needs.

Surprisingly, however, Kleinbaum finds almost all the variation in brokerage to be explained by "social capital"; that is, in the relationships that an employee forms in different positions rather than the personal knowledge he acquires. While Kleinbaum warns that those findings are preliminary, they could carry valuable lessons for companies that utilize rotational management programs to familiarize those being groomed for management in various areas of the company. Most such programs tend to emphasize the nuts and bolts of "learning the business" rather than developing a professional network, which might ultimately be more useful in the long run. "While it’s important to be exposed to how things work in different parts of the organization," he says, "there may be even more importance in the sets of relationships you acquire with people."

Kleinbaum, Adam M. 2012. "Organizational Misfits and the Origins of Brokerage in Intrafirm Networks." Administrative Science Quarterly 57(3):407-52.