by Maya Townsend and Bob Akerley

How to Apply the Principles of Network Management to Talent Management

Jan 23, 201213 mins
IT Leadership

Talent management shares many similarities with IT network management, according to consultants Maya Townsend and Bob Akerley. They explain what IT networks can teach CIOs about talent, and how IT leaders can optimize the essential human networks inside their organizations.

Every CIO can agree that it’s essential to keep the data network up. If it goes down, then so does the business—and potentially the CIO’s career. Understanding and optimizing the network are key components of every successful CIO’s role from their first day on the job to their last.

Similarly, every successful CIO is responsible for a human network. IT staffers share information—business intelligence, strategic direction, client requests, errors and bugs—and convert it into value for ITs customers. The modes of transmittal are sometimes technological (email, IM, wikis, etc.), but the movement is all human-driven, and the content is highly dependent on the interaction between people, teams and departments. However, most CIOs rarely think about their people in network terms or apply the significant knowledge that exists in IT about networks to human beings. In this article, we’ll look at what networks have to teach us about talent, and how CIOs can optimize their essential human networks.

The CIO’s Human Network

Every organization consists of multiple, enmeshed, complex and constantly evolving webs of relationships that people activate in order to solve problems, gain expertise, make decisions and discover the next “big thing.”

Just as “junk in” leads to “junk out” in data networks, the wrong connections or wrong inputs (incorrect information, faulty assumptions, inadequate understanding, or miscommunications) can damage ITs reputation, relationships and deliverables. If teams aren’t sharing the right information or if staffers don’t have the expertise to analyze the data properly, they can hurt project success rates, systems availability and virtually anything else IT provides.

Usually, CIOs address people issues through the guidance of their HR departments, which lead them through activities like talent reviews and performance appraisal systems, and their PMOs, which assist with project reviews, skilling, and methodologies. However, these approaches miss something thats so familiar to CIOs that its surprising: the network.

Studies in network behavior—conducted over 30+ years by experts such as corporate anthropologist Dr. Karen Stephenson—confirm that human networks can suffer from the same vulnerabilities as IT networks, such as single points of failure (SPOFs) and weak links. Remedies for human networks resemble IT network fixes:

  • Single points of failure: Protect against SPOFs by building redundancies into a system. Make sure there are multiple people who hold critical organizational and technological knowledge, and who can fulfill mission-critical roles, make decisions on the fly and solve problems.
  • Weak links: Shore up weak links. If any transaction relies on only one person, it’s at risk. Just like in an IT network, a human network needs backups in case of failure.

The science of networks also provides an additional tool for managing human networks: critical connectors—pthe hubs, gatekeepers and pulsetakers. These three “power roles” have immense influence within a network, although people often dont know they exist.

The Three Power Roles in the Human Network

Hubs are directly connected to many people. Like a router in an infrastructure network, the human hub has a many-to-many relationship with others in the organization. Information comes in from multiple sources to the hub, and he or she shares it with many. Hubs communicate constantly: tell something to a hub, and soon the entire organization will know about it.

In Figure 1, Karen is a hub. Despite having no direct reports (the managers in this organization are Kuldeep, Jorgen, and Bian), she has more connections than anyone else. She links directly to eight people: Jim, Jorgen, Kuldeep, Fiona, Bian, Archana, Michael and Mei-Xing.

Human Network
Figure 1. A simple human network

Hubs like Karen are invaluable to CIOs. CIOs can use them to spread the word quickly about an important event, new process, change in strategy or procedure. This is important. Most CIOs think that if they’ve talked about the message at an all-hands meeting and posted it on the intranet, thats sufficient. However, with all of the data people receive (which, according to the University of California at San Diego, is 33.79 gigabytes per person per day), the critical information often gets lost in the shuffle. Sending information through hubs helps make the message stick since people trust hubs and tend to remember what they have to say. Using hubs will help CIOs ensure that critical information doesnt get lost.

However, hubs also embody risk. It can be as bad as when a router goes down: without a hub, communication and information flow can grind to a halt. That’s why its important for CIOs to identify hubs and build redundancy into their organizations. With redundancy, if a hub hits the lottery and retires to Bali, customers dont suffer from the loss of the hubs knowledge.

Another challenge, of course, occurs when hubs are bitter. If they start talking critically about the CIO, that message will be heard and valued by people in the organization. To prevent hubs from feeding the rumor mill in the wrong way, wise CIOs keep them close: check in with them, listen to their concerns and make sure that they feel appreciated.

Gatekeepers hold the keys to specific areas of an organization, groups of people and bodies of knowledge. In Figure 1, Bian is a gatekeeper. Harry, Kwame and Aisha all work through Bian to access the knowledge they need from the rest of the organization. If Bian were to go away, these three individuals would be completely cut off from everyone else.

Gatekeepers like Bian are the firewalls of the human network: They must be accessed in order to send or receive certain information, and they must allow the request to reach its destination. Gatekeepers can be intense obstacles or tremendous supporters. They are critically important to CIOs because they:

  • Coordinate speedy passage of needed information;
  • Approve access to certain people and data;
  • Broker relationships between parts of the organization;
  • Engage people past the “gate” in change; and
  • Can block an organization change, strategy or project simply by refusing to allow access or transmit information.

Just as an IT organization continually tunes its firewall to respond to new threats and specifications, the CIO needs to monitor gatekeepers to make sure theyre aligned with the mission and strategic goals of the organization. If not, work needs to occur—quickly—to mitigate the consequences of unaligned activity.

Pulsetakers are the most covert of the three roles. Their claim to fame is that they are indirectly connected to many people in the organization. The best way to describe the power of their role is by using the six degrees of separation rule. If average people take six steps to reach a connection, pulsetakers take only two or three.

In Figure 1, Fiona and Archana are pulsetakers. They don’t have the most connections—only 5 each—but they travel the shortest distance to access any other person. They may not connect with many people, but they connect with the right people. Pulsetakers have their fingers on the pulse of the organization and, without much effort, they can tell you whats really happening in the company.

CIOs can use pulsetakers to:

  • Get the word out quickly and quietly about whats going on;
  • Learn how people are feeling about the new change effort;
  • Access people who know the right people; and
  • Get the real status on a strategy, project, or initiative.

Monitoring Network Performance

Human networks change constantly. They’re resilient and can adapt quickly. That’s their strength and the challenge they present to CIOs: They cant check network status once and declare victory. They need to frequently examine and analyze their human networks to ensure optimum performance.

The best way to do this is by mapping the human network. There are many mapping tools available (see InFlow, NetForm, NetMiner, UCINET, or ValueNet Works for starters). All share the same basic functionality: they map information flows and relationships between organizations, roles, groups and/or individuals. They produce visuals like network diagrams and statistics that can be used to gauge health and risk. Structural over-dependency, missing links, too many links, unaligned links and orphans are all red flags that somethings wrong.

Network Map
Figure 2: Problem solving and expertise information flow in a small IT organization. Image only shows connections between departments (not within departments).

Structural Over-Dependency. When a network depends too much on a certain node, loss of that node can cause damage to the whole. Figure 2 shows all activities related to problem solving and expertise in a small IT organization. The leader of this organization would be right to worry: Theres a single point of failure (who also happens to be a hub) in the network. The sole employee in the Security department (at 11:00 on the diagram) is responsible for almost 50 percent of all activity in this organization. Take her away and activity would grind to a halt.

Missing Links. Another red flag is a missing link. If you look at the interplay between Software Delivery and Operations in Figure 2, youll notice something interesting: There isn’t one single connection between the two departments. The fact that there are no problem solving or expertise exchanges is problematic. What happens when a customized build is ready to be “thrown over the wall” for baseline maintenance and enhancements? If all goes well, there should be no problem. But, if there is any deviation from the plan—an undocumented bug, a critical and high maintenance client, a new technology used during development—this organization doesnt have an easy path for solving these problems or transferring expertise from Software Delivery to Operations. The lack of these links could cause ongoing, customer-facing issues.

Unaligned Links. One software development company bemoaned the lack of innovation in the company. An analysis showed that the problem wasnt a lack of innovation. The problem was that the creative minds in the company weren’t connected to the implementers. The company was coming up with lots of great ideas, but none of the people who could implement them knew about them. Consequently, opportunity was lost.

Too Many Links. Often, people fall into the trap of thinking that the remedy to human network challenges is to connect everyone. Consider what would happen if, every time you needed to make a decision, you needed to talk with every single person in your department. It would take way too long to get things done. Similarly, too many links in a network can indicate an overabundance of bureaucracy, a broken system or people spending too much time on the wrong things. Too many links is often just as big a problem as the next red flag: orphans.

Orphans. Look at the ERP implementation department in Figure 2. You’ll notice that this group is unconnected to any other department. Often, IT shops set up projects like this for good reason. For example, because the work is complex or high visibility, the projects are walled off so people can focus and resist distraction. However, this strategy can seriously impede knowledge sharing and coordination. Someone inside the project might discover a procedure that vastly simplifies a problem that someone outside has been working on for months. The outsider would never know. Or people outside might have information about projects with interdependencies with the ERP system that doesnt get transmitted until too late.

Human Network Opportunities

Just as analysis of the human network allows CIOs to monitor performance and mitigate risk, it also uncovers opportunities. Often, CIOs are not aware of the hidden subject matter experts and high performers buried in their organizations. Too often CIOs become aware of these people only after they leave.

Hidden Subject Matter Experts. Network mapping uncovers the trusted experts in the organization: The people who, quietly and unobtrusively, are trusted by their colleagues to have the best and latest information about a customer, coding language, product line or organizational process. These are the people that, when laid off, can hurt an organization just through their absence.

High Performers. IT leaders think they can identify their high performers. However, theyre not always right. One company’s technology leadership team identified the 30 individuals they thought would be highly connected. Then, after a network analysis, they matched their list to the results. Only five people from the initial list were actual critical connectors. It turned out that the other 25 on the initial list were only one or two steps away from the leaders: direct contacts or contacts of direct contacts. But, since the leaders’ personal networks were limited (as everyones are), they couldnt see the connectors outside their personal networks. It was a wake-up call. The leadership team rethought their talent development strategies and created special plans to leverage the actual key connectors.

Performance Webs. Another error that organizations often make is that they dont consider how individuals’ networks influence their ability to deliver. After a merger, two organizations looked at their staff to identify who they wanted to keep. One star performer was quickly named. However, the organization almost sandbagged him by proposing to release key members of his network: People who didn’t show up as stars themselves, but who helped the star perform. Luckily, the star and his support network were retained so there was no interruption in service quality.

CIOs often ask, Can I hire for critical connectors? Can I find a replacement for a pulsetaker who’s leaving? The answer is no. Hubs, gatekeepers and pulsetakers emerge in networks due to multiple, complex factors that cant be predicted. Some of these factors have to do with roles: Project managers will naturally interact with more people than coders simply due to the nature of the work. Other factors have to do with individuals and their personal integrity, reliability, trustworthiness and desire to share information.

But the most important factors have to do with the other people in the organization: If they don’t trust and accept someone, that person cannot become a critical connector. Since IT leaders can’t hire critical connectors, they must monitor, maintain and fine tune what they have in order to keep human networks up and running.

Optimizing Your Human Network

CIOs are already natural network managers through their deep understanding of and interaction with IT networks. So it doesn’t take much to apply network knowledge to human networks. If CIOs have IT performance dashboards, they can also have human network dashboards. Savvy CIOs keep a human network dashboard that includes a list of hubs, gatekeepers and pulsetakers; a list of single points of failure and SPOF remedies; a plan for retaining critical connectors; and a list of red flags. They keep it in a locked drawer—no dashboard updates at town hall meetings—but they look at it every day to make sure they’re keeping their human network up and running.

Maya Townsend is founder and principal consultant of Partnering Resources, a management consulting company that uses network knowledge to build aligned, adaptable, collaborative organizations. For more information, visit or e-mail maya at partneringresources dot com.

Bob Akerley is a Senior Principal Business Consultant in the Office of the CIO at EMC Corporation. He is a thought leader on a broad array of IT disciplines including business-IT convergence, information architecture, and organization planning. He can be reached at robert dot akerley at emc dotcom.