It’s rare that somebody forces me to really look at something differently – but Karen Stevenson in an SLAB lecture at OCAD did.

Karen pointed out that the three human variables that matter are: transactions, authority, and trust. Transactions among people are easily handled by technology. It’s been long standardized, and in fact, we’re making incremental improvements in that all the time. Where there’s ambiguity in transactions, you need authority to make decisions. What was really left unsaid, but what I’m concluding, is that since humans are very creative people, they always manage to get themselves into non-standardized problems, and as such, they will always need authority. (Look no further than to Judge Judy for daily evidence of that.)

As Karen rightly points out, the factor that matters the most in human networks is trust. It’s this trust that gives networks their power to undermine hierarchies. Hierarchies, however, are far more durable than networks over the long run, which thankfully for me, doesn’t challenge what I already know from Kathleen Thelen in “How Institutions Evolve”. Hierarchies last a long time without their creators knowing that they will (all the time).

Whether or not genuine trust can be built through electronic social networks is the biggest question. We’re seeing some evidence of it happening through eBay.

The implications of her work are certainly relevant to our field of social analytics – a sub-domain of web analytics. It’s a field I really don’t talk much about in this space, but, it’s relevant to our interests.

Thanks to S-LAB and to Karen Stevenson for coming up to Toronto, talking to us, and changing the way I think about hierarchies.