Fluctuating support networks

I had the recent pleasure of meeting Judith Holton, a colleague at Mount Allison University. Judith passed on a couple of papers which I found most interesting, as she has looked deeply into the theory behind the need for what I would describe as social learning networks. Judith uses the term, “fluctuating support networks”. In Exploring the informal organization in knowledge work: A grounded theory of  fluctuating support networks (2008), Judith concludes [my emphasis]:

The study contributes to management praxis by raising awareness and offering insights into the practical value of fluctuating support networks and their power to rehumanize the knowledge workplace. As an informal response to the formal organization, fluctuating support networks deviate from the conventions of the formal organization and provide network members with a venue for fulfilling unmet social and psychological work-related needs. Knowledge and understanding of such networks may enable managers to understand their functionality in resolving knowledge workers’ concerns and needs in response to persistent and unpredictable change and may offer managers an additional resource for achieving strategic organizational goals, especially those goals that require cross-functional integration and non-conventional perspectives to address increasingly complex organizational problems. Adopting the basic social process of rehumanizing as a conceptual framework may assist managers and human resource professionals in developing organizational strategies that support a broader humanistic paradigm. Such perspective also highlights the value of the informal organization, and fluctuating support networks in particular, as important psychological infrastructure for the knowledge workplace.

Rehumanising Knowledge Work through Fluctuating Support Networks [PDF] (2005) describes the three stages of rehumanising (Finding & Likening; Igniting Passions; Mutual Engagement). I was most surprised when I noticed that each of these steps parallels the three parts of personal knowledge management, namely: Seeking; Sense-making & Sharing. I’ve added some of my previous statements on working smarter, after the colon:

Finding & Likening, which is serendipitous or intentional: PKM prepares the mind to be open to new ideas (enhanced serendipity)

Igniting Passions, which amplifies causal looping process:  Aids in observing, thinking and using information & knowledge (I Sense)

Mutual Engagement, which facilitates creative problem solving: “You know you’re in a community of practice when your practice changes” (We Use)

Judith Holton’s research confirms my observations and readings over the past decade. Knowledge workers cannot work effectively within the confines of hierarchical structures that are beset by change from within and without. Social networks, facilitated by social media, provide the fluctuating support networks that are necessary. The problem is clear:

Knowledge workers identify this increasing sense of dehumanisation in their work and work environments as a particular concern. The loss of the human dimension in workplace interactions is characterized by a work environment that is compressed, fearful, isolating, bureaucratic and legalistic; by interactions that are atomised and inauthentic; and, by work assignments that erode autonomy and identity. (Holton, 2008)

Once again, I see that social learning in informal networks is key to getting things done in today’s knowledge-intensive workplace.

2 Responses to “Fluctuating support networks”

  1. Anna Smith

    Hi Harold,
    This is most interesting. “[…] a venue for fulfilling unmet social and psychological work-related needs.” – I haven’t heard that anywhere and it’s so true… I used to work as a manager (fast food) and felt that the processes mattered more than the people. So that could bring about a sense of dehumanization? Great thoughts here, I’ll have to digest it some more. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Paul Angileri

    Here’s an article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek that discusses at a very high level some of what you cover in your post:


    The point, I think, is to have the employees feel as close to the action as possible. Linking this notion of employee engagement with PKM, Mikulincer (1997) did a study that showed that workers in a secure attachment environment were more likely to seek new ideas and information, and process them more effectively, than insecure persons. The study was done a while ago but I think its results retain some salience in today’s world.


    Mikulincer, M. (1997). Adult Attachment Style and Information Processing: Individual Differences in Curiosity and Cognitive Closure. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 72(5), 1217-1230. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.


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