STORY BY MORGAN MERCER + ART BY BILL FERENC + PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARIE KETRING
Ignoring traditional business hierarchy, Vikas shows companies how people in their organizations are really connected. By uncovering these hidden networks, he helps bosses work smarter with employees.
is friends called him crazy. It was Sunday night, and once again Vikas Narula planted himself in the computer lab to code. Feeling trapped wasn’t hard. Fluorescent lights hummed overhead. The room had no windows. A computer science degree? Vikas knew his friends were right: it wasn’t for him. He preferred people to computers. But he pushed on with his degree anyway. It was practical, after all. He graduated. Took a job with a high-tech medical software company. Then another. But he spent fifteen years slowly growing more and more unhappy. A slew of bad bosses, outside management, and dwindling entrepreneurial spirit at the organizations he worked for sent him searching for a better way.
He found it. But first he needed to quit his job.
Leaving bureaucracy and a money-driven culture in the dust, Vikas set off chasing after an idea to create a tool that would provide an answer to the very workplace problems that sent him looking for something more fulfilling in the first place.
“I saw a lot of things that didn’t make sense and decisions that didn’t make sense. I saw really awesome people, my colleagues, who were totally marginalized by leaders who had no idea how awesome my colleagues were. Keyhubs was my way to go out and say, ‘I’m going to put an end to this absurdity.'”
A Dilbert cartoon. That’s exactly what Vikas felt like at work. The wrong person got promoted. The right person wasn’t retained. The people at the top didn’t understand what was going on at the bottom. Company culture suffered. Unhappiness skyrocketed. Business stalled. How could companies get it so wrong so often? After years of toiling under bad bosses, Vikas feared he was bound to repeat their mistakes. Set on avoiding this, he enrolled in Duke University’s MBA program to learn how to be a better manager. It was there he found the answer to his question.
“Anyone who has lived in Dilbert’s world for any period of time will know that there’s got to be a better way.”
When he learned about informal networks, he saw a path to the solution.
Here’s the idea: Companies operate under a hierarchy or chain of command—CEO, vice president, manager, and so on. Often, management assumes this hierarchy explains how work gets done in their organization. But that’s not it. In reality, work gets done through an unseen network of personal relationships and connections. Uncover that informal network, and you see how your company actually runs.
Returning to his managerial position, Vikas set out to find a tool to map these connections in his own workplace. But even with his computer science background, the tools he found were too cumbersome to use. They were meant for researchers and educators, not business people. He wanted something slick. Easy. Web-based. When he couldn’t find a tool, he made one. Partnering with a classmate from his MBA program, Vikas turned his vision into a piece of software.
Keyhubs addresses the disconnect that exists between the top and the bottom of an organization, giving companies information to bridge the gap so they can make better decisions. Vikas helps leaders tap into the real power of their organizations by using technology to make the invisible visible.
As part of his process, Vikas lays out a map composed of circles of varying sizes in front of a management team. Each circle represents an employee on staff. For one client in particular, workers were asked one question: Who do you view as a role model? Arrows jutted this way and that between the circles, revealing who people looked up to in the organization. One circle stood out—employee #10. Who was this hidden gem? Management guessed, and guessed again. They had no idea. Turns out Vikas found employee #10 buried four levels down in the traditional hierarchy. Out of sight, out of mind.
These are the problems that Vikas and his team routinely help companies troubleshoot. When you give companies the tools to see how people connect at work, Vikas found it often becomes abundantly clear how they should respond. Questions of who to hire, how to handle a merger and acquisition, how to increase collaboration, or who the negative influencers are become easier to answer. What Vikas realized is that when he turned management’s attention toward the relationships of the people in its organization, he cut out some of the Dilbert and infused a little more soul back into the workplace.
After analyzing informal networks at countless Fortune 500 companies, here are the universal threads Vikas discovered about human connection:
1. Talent and influence transcend hierarchy.
2. Title and status don’t necessarily grant you influence. Influence happens by building genuine connections. Having a fat title and a big salary doesn’t grant you that privilege.
3. Proximity makes a big difference. If you’re not close to people and you don’t seek people out on a day-to-day basis, it can affect your ability to build human connection. We commonly see silos in the organizations. Human connection is greatly facilitated by face-to-face interaction.
4. There are different types of influence. You might have someone who has a large followership in an organization, or grassroots influence, but who isn’t perceived by the higher ups in that way. And vice versa—someone may be seen as highly influential by a higher up, even if they’re not. This gives them an associative influence.
In 2009, Vikas quit his managerial job. Another bad boss forced him to his breaking point. But at the prompting of his wife, Vikas passed on looking for another position and instead threw all his energy behind Keyhubs. Nearly a year and a half after launching his company, he was ready to turn it into a full-time venture.
Companies routinely hire Vikas to give them the inside scoop behind the goings-on in their organizations. But while the Keyhubs founder is used to laying down surprising revelations in front of management teams, he didn’t bargain for the insight he’d gain into his own life by starting a company. Entrepreneurship gave him a new purpose. He turned the hatred he had for bad bosses into thankfulness. Without them, he wouldn’t have turned the concept of informal networks into the basis for a consulting company. Without them, he wouldn’t have started showing organizations how to work better.
In the last five years, a new mission emerged for Vikas that fuses the two worlds he knows best: technology and human connection. He took the years of bad feelings built up around his corporate career and channeled it into a way to help others avoid the same workplace pitfalls that plagued his career and drained his soul.
“All the things I experienced that felt very unfair, bizarre, and Dilbert-like—I’m now able to prevent, circumvent, and avoid for the folks we work with, in some shape or form.”
Now, one company at a time, Vikas gives employees the information they need to infuse more of that entrepreneurial spirit and people-focused mentality into their work. For businesses, the path toward working smarter lies in seeing the invisible. Vikas uncovers the links between staff to tell the story of an office through human connection, showing businesses what’s been hidden for too long.
Compiled by Pollen’s program and outreach strategist, Tenzin Kunsal
David Krackhardt, Jeffrey R. Hanson; Harvard Business Review
Janis V. Sanchez-Hucles, Donald D. Davis; American Psychologist
Jean Lau Chin, Open Journal of Leadership
Cristian Deszö of the University of Maryland and David Ross of Columbia University; Scientific American
Beryl Nelson , Communications on the ACM
Roberto M. Fernandez, Isabel Fernandez-Mateo; American Sociological Review
Alec Torres, National Review
This American Life