Dr. Karen Stephenson created a fusion of: quantum physics, chemistry, anthropology, ethnology, mathematics, software development, & management consulting
Why aren’t corporations more corporate? It’s one of today’s top business problems.
People work in silos and reap their personal and divisional profits at the expense of their peers and the “whole” organization. Why hasn’t this tired old behaviour been corrected, now that there are advanced tools available for mapping and measuring cross-silo connections? Today it is possible to identify key players who build the network, and reward them for their “net-work,” based on objective data, not political hearsay.
The tools and underlying research were developed by Dr. Karen Stephenson and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker and The Tipping Point. The consulting firm Karen founded — Netform — was called by CIO Magazine one of the 100 Most Innovative Firms in the World.
But it didn’t begin with the challenge of corporatizing corporations. It began with a love of art and quantum chemistry.
Art & Quantum Chemistry
“Art and drawing have always been a part of my life, so I didn’t think to actually major in it when I went to college. Instead, my studies in chemistry in high school were so interesting that I chose to major in it. While in college, I became equally interested in physics, so I combined them in what was known as quantum chemistry.” While in school, she was still drawing portraits for family and friends and went to the art department for feedback. The professor she consulted persuaded her to also go for an art degree. So, she pursued two degrees, in both art and science.
A friend asked her, “What’re you going to do with these degrees?” She replied, “I don’t know. It’s a liberal arts college — can’t I study what I want?”
She wasn’t concerned with how they fit together. In her mind, the abstract thinking underlying both art and science was the same, and understanding the logical patterns in both led her to see what others couldn’t.
“As part of the requirements for completing a major in art history, an annual exam is given at the end of the school year. In that exam, you are shown 100 slides, each slide representing a single painting. The goal was to identify the artist from only a portion of the painting or a close-up of the brush strokes or painting technique. I “aced” them all. The professor gave me a commendation, commenting, ‘No one has ever done this.” I responded, ‘Well, OK, I guess I got lucky”. But after 3 consecutive years of scoring 100%, it wasn’t luck. It was pattern recognition.
She pursued a graduate degree in quantum chemistry while working in the NIOSH laboratory at the University of Utah (National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health). “My office was on the mezzanine floor…. looking through the glass partition down on the floor below … to where 200 chemists, physicists, and technicians were working, and that was when I had an epiphany! I saw these interacting patterns among the people that had little to do with their work. They were connected in these really interesting patterns I had seen before … in Feynman diagrams, which are graphical representations showing subatomic behavior or protein-molecule changing their orientation…. So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be interesting if there was an underlying science to the way things are organized — including human beings? Why would human beings be exempt from any scientific laws? They wouldn’t!”
“I couldn’t get this idea out of my mind. It kept bothering me, and bothering me, and bothering me. ‘Kept me up at night because I wanted to know why? Why? Why were people connected in these patterns? I just know there’s an underlying logic to it.… Perhaps if I could find these same patterns in the archaeological record, for example trade networks. Maybe then, I might be able to say the two are connected.” So she took classes in archaeology, and her chemistry department head, Henry Erying, supported her inquiry. She studied ancient tribal networks with anthropologist Per Hage and the brilliant, “crazy mathematician” Frank Harary (father of graph theory). She subsequently earned her Masters in Anthropology with a specialty in Mathematical Modelling where patterns common to human interaction and other inorganic contexts were identified.
With her new master’s degree, Karen could have pursued a PhD, but instead she went to Boston with her new husband, who had just accepted a position at Harvard. She took a course at the Harvard Extension School and wrote a paper on the ancient trade networks that ran between the Tigris and Euphrates, applying her new algorithm. That prompted her professor to call her in for a consultation. When they met, she shared her background and asked who he was.
“I’m Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky, Director of the Harvard Peabody Museum. I’d like you to join our department.” The rest, as they say, is history (or archaeology, in this case).
Pursuing the Puzzle
She joined the department and earned her PhD in anthropology, investigating her anthro-chemical puzzle, working with Dr. Marvin Zelen, a world-renowned statistician. “I talked to him for over a year, repeatedly explaining these patterns. Finally, after a year, the penny dropped, and he said, ‘Oh, my God! I finally understand what you’ve been trying to tell me! We can do this.’ So we jointly published an article that ended up being a seminal article in the field. A year later, I was hired by UCLA’s business school as a professor in management.” During her decade-long tenure at ULCA, she started her own consultancy to collect data from both research participants and consulting clients. She refined her methodology for collecting survey data and then created the software to process and analyse the data, making it accessible through the Internet as a software for service.
Dr. Stephenson won international recognition as one of the world’s foremost corporate anthropologists. Nonetheless, the university was slow to respond to her new initiatives despite a growing list of articles in Forbes, The Economist, Wired, Business 2.0, and a number of other print and online media. The growing recognition brought her more clients looking for answers and along with it, the enmity of the faculty.
Then she took a call from the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
He said, “We teach designers and architects how to design the built environment, but we don’t teach them anything about the actual structure of a culture or how we could design a building for a culture. Could you come here and help us try to marry these two fields of expertise together?” So, she went back to Harvard, and after five years, she had finished all the course development and teaching. She left to pursue research and consulting on her own.
The Journey of a Lifetime
“I’ve been on this 35-year journey, but I feel that I’ve only just scratched the surface.”
She has travelled on that journey 345 days a year for almost 30 years — more than most pilots — and has honed her skills deploying technology, infrastructure, and simple, creative efficiency, freeing her to do what she does best. She doesn’t use secretaries — they slow her down. Her home is sparse, like her suitcase. But her education and experiences form quite a collection.
The journey may never end. As colleagues Jeanne & Barry Frew noted, “One of the reasons why we really enjoy working with her is that her work has never stopped growing.”
Clients, colleagues, and friends describe her as eclectic, high-energy, brilliant, curious, quick, collaborative, connective, down-to-earth, integrative, empathetic, open, interesting, practical, fun, optimistic, smart, strategic, visionary, focused, risk-seeking, funny, confident, and a good noticer & listener. Jeanne & Barry Frew observed, “She doesn’t understand what a boundary is…. That’s one thing that distinguishes her.”
Another is communication and connectedness. According to former client Maria Leo from Merrill Lynch, “She’s truly amazing when she talks about her work. She is a gifted speaker making the concepts come alive. She makes the abstract real and relevant. She has the ability to connect with the audience and in turn they feel empowered to use that knowledge in their organisation.” She enters into client relationships as an expert collaborator, open to new ideas, listening and observing, with respect for the client’s expertise.
That goes a long way towards developing trust, not only as an object of study, but also as an essential element in conducting her studies. As Jeanne & Barry Frew observed, “Even when she has a strongly held belief, she’s willing to hesitate and listen to understand.”
Listening to understand is vastly different from listening to respond.
Connectedness, listening, and her mind’s unique collection help her see things differently. According to Jeanne & Barry Frew, “The people who sat in the silos weren’t able to see outside the siloes, the way she was able to see across them. One CEO said to her, ‘I don’t see hierarchy,’ to which she responded, ‘Of course you can’t see it, you’re sitting on top of it.’” She has a way of communicating that gets people to drop their guard, or as a Navy Rear Admiral said, “You have such a nice way of delivering bad news.” She could get people to see across a cultural divide to the connectors waiting on the other side, wanting to engage in relationship building. One of her colleagues recounted:
“I think everybody sensed it, but she saw and said it differently from everybody else.”
Looking back at her intriguing and integrative 35-year journey, Karen notes, “I wasn’t looking to create something, I was trying to solve the riddle of culture. The rest just happened. I didn’t know I was creating a new field at the time. I was relentlessly following the idea of how trust binds us together like an energy field binds the nucleus of an atom or a string of atoms in a molecule. I remember Bob Eccles (a business professor) said to me one day, ‘You need to focus.’ I looked at him and said, ‘FOCUS?? I don’t understand what you’re saying. I’m the most focused person I know. I’ve been focused like a laser beam on this idea, trying to solve this one problem, and it has taken me from field to field to field to solve it.’
She fondly remembers (with a sly smile) a finance professor at UCLA commenting on her work, “This research in social networks won’t amount to much.” That was the 90s, and early days in the field she was creating. Now, years later, clients hire her to enhance their connectivity (inward and outward) for effectiveness and innovation. When she started, business leaders couldn’t see human networks. Now they can, and those who see and use them well create significant advantage.
LA Philharmonic and The Pentagon – social network diagrams. Source: Karen Stephenson, “Trafficking in Trust: The Art and Science of Human Knowledge Networks,” in Enlightened Power: How Women are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, edited by Lin Coughlin, Ellen Wingard, and Keith Hollihan, 242–265. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.
“When you’re trying to solve a riddle, many times people on the outside — or even those in your own field — can’t see what you’re trying to do. They see you as unruly and unserious because you’re colouring outside the lines. But those lines are man-made, and they can be un-made and re-made again. If you’re chasing an idea, you have to test its worthiness by pummelling it to death. If it rises up like a phoenix and keeps on surprising you, well then, you’ve got yourself a really fine idea. People will try and stop you because what you are doing is unconventional. But you just keep on going. They are blocking you because they think they know better, but they don’t really understand. You on the other hand, know you don’t understand and are therefore more open to new ideas. Remember: innovation is the nemesis of legacy and convention.
Collecting, Seeing, Exploring, But Never Straying
Depth of understanding was key for Karen. She could see how things were connected because she looked with depth and breadth at the underlying patterns in paintings, quantum chemistry, mathematics, and anthropology.
To see at depth requires curiosity and genuine interest, and the result, in Karen’s case, was an eclectic education, a unique collection of skills and experiences, and a ground-breaking journey led by an epiphany on the mezzanine floor of a chemistry laboratory.
“None of my education has ever been wasted. I use every bit of it…. And that epiphany about a science informing organizational patterns is what I have followed. I’ve not strayed from it… ever.”
It appears that, for Karen, epiphany is a verb, not a noun.
Have you begun your epiphany?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Dr. Karen Stephenson is the Founder & CEO of Netform Resources and one of the world’s top Corporate Anthropologists. She’s “from” the Netherlands, Spain, UK, and USA (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order) and is featured in TISTalk (MSD) Passion & Practicality. For more information on her work, see: netformresources.com.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you’re all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research — you’re the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.