Rehumanising Knowledge Work through Fluctuating Support Networks: A grounded theory

Judith A. Holton, Ph.D.


Through the basic social structural process of fluctuating support
networks, knowledge workers self-organise to overcome the
dehumanising impact of a rapidly changing workplace context.
Such networks operate outside the formal organisation. They are
epiphenomenal – self-emerging, self-organising, and selfsustaining.
Participation is voluntary and intuitive. The growth
of fluctuating support networks facilitates a rehumanising
process which serves to counterbalance the dehumanisation that
knowledge workers experience in the face of persistent and
unpredictable change.

The core variable of the theory, the basic social psychological
process of rehumanising, is characterised by authenticity, depth
and meaning, recognition and respect, safety and healing and
kindred sharing. Rehumanising gives meaning to work while
sustaining energy and commitment. Fluctuating support network
relationships offer members validation and subtle support.
Members pursue shared interests and passions. Activities are
characterised by challenge, experimentation, creativity and
learning. The resultant sense of achievement renews energy and
builds confidence, enhancing commitment and bonding thereby
sustaining network engagement.

Social Structural Conditions Precipitating Network

Today’s knowledge workplace is increasingly characterised
by complexity, compression and intensification; the result of
continuous and often rapid change (Foley, 2002) and where
perhaps the only thing constant is change. Even the largest and
most successful organisations may unexpectedly encounter a
“zone of turbulence” (Pascale, 1994 in Kirkbride & Durcan, 2002).
An increasing diffusion of boundaries within and between
organisations renders knowledge work highly interdependent. At
the same time, careers are largely viewed as “boundaryless” and
workers as nomads moving from organisation to organisation,
either of choice or of necessity, as their environments continually
reconfigure (Drucker, 2002; Pittinsky & Shih, 2004; Sullivan,
1999). Added to this, the compression of time created by
communications technologies and increasing workloads has
fostered compressed, dehumanised interactions.

While there is an increasing recognition that knowledge
work is more organic and interconnected, many organisations
remain trapped in linear, assembly-line work structures and
processes. Coping with the complexity, compression and
turbulence of change has raised levels of workplace stress so that
it is now a significant factor for many. In particular, the
workload intensification so often associated with downsizing
leaves line managers little time to focus attention on human
resource management issues (MacNeil & Renwick, 2002).
Managers describe the immensity of the change underway in
organisations as causing many workers to give up and barely
function. Motivation and commitment decline. Management in
the midst of such change is much less about predicting, planning
and controlling and much more about facilitating and coaching

The dynamics involved in coping with change inevitably
generate resistance (Bovey & Hede, 2001; Galt, 2002).
Knowledge workers respond in various ways. Entrenchment is a
common response as individual workers “silo” their efforts and
work in pockets with minimal interaction or movement across the
silos, keeping “heads down” and “staying under the radar”. The
more people fear the uncertainty of further change, the more they
seek to retain the status quo as a means of establishing
equilibrium within their environment (Chakravorti, 2004). With
sufficient resistance, the work environment becomes staid and
segmented, effectively “dumbing down” the organisation and its
people. The workplace ossifies. Over time, an aura of pendulous
resistance pervades as systems and workers become stagnant and
stale. Over time, the syndrome leaves workers less and less open
to future change efforts. A cultural resistance to change produces
increasingly tentative and qualified responses to subsequent
organisational change initiatives. Engagement may be
superficial and transient.

While recognising that change is needed, workers become
risk averse. They lose their ability to trust and their confidence to
move into the uncertainty of change. Instead, efforts focus on
protecting turf and hoarding knowledge as a source of power.
Secrecy, mistrust and competition escalate. A cynical
disengagement ensues. The resultant fragmentation and
diffusion of collective efforts further erodes organisational
intelligence. Opportunistic behaviours may surface and raise the
level of cynicism and scepticism. The outcome can be an
intellectual and emotional paralysis brought on by a saturated
coping capacity (DeMeuse & Marks, 2002). A deficit mentality
sets in.

When resistance is insufficient to impede change, knowledge
workers may deny its inevitability by seeking to undermine the
planned change through ‘flannelling’, a strategy of dissent that
quietly subverts rules of cultural control (Fleming & Spicer,
2003). Eventually, however, the dynamic tension between the
persistent need to change and the cultural resistance to change
builds until the balance tips. Overwhelmed workers, unable to
let go of the past, ‘awfulise’ their work environments. In so doing,
they personalise the actions of the organisation and management
and adopt victim status. Awfulising contributes to the downward
spiral of dehumanisation as perceived by knowledge workers.
They may, in turn, be typecast and stigmatised within the
changing organisational environment. In the process,
responsibility for the problem of coping with change frequently
shifts from the organisation to the individual and a mutual
disillusionment follows as both workers and organisations wrestle
with the challenges of coping with change and resistance to
change. The result is a downward spiral of mutual

In this environment of persistent and unpredictable change
and mutual dehumanisation, the basic problem or concern
expressed by knowledge workers is the loss of the human
dimension in workplace interactions. This dehumanisation of the
knowledge workplace is characterised 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. Individuals hide
out in cubicles, feeling alone and isolated.

The organisational quest for efficiency reduces opportunities
to facilitate relationship building, compromises valuable
conversations and erodes trust and collaboration as management
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
attention shifts from managing people to managing scarce
resources. Organisations ‘churn’ workers, shifting and divesting
human capital as deemed necessary (Cappelli, 2004). Many
workers are left feeling unrecognised and devalued. Even those
who retain their jobs are not spared in this environment. The
heightened stress, increased workloads and perpetual insecurity
of this “survivor syndrome” can reduce job commitment, lowering
morale and job satisfaction (Vahtera et al., 2004). Survivors of
organisational transitions exhibit depression, distraction, loss of
trust and confidence (DeMeuse & Marks, 2002). These job
survivors also present with physiological conditions symptomatic
of elevated stress levels (Pepper & Messinger, 2000a, 2000b).


The instability of many workplace environments results in a
loss of autonomy and even identity for many knowledge workers.
Over time, nothing feels real and they long to reconnect with
what they value – what they are passionate about. They long for
a place to be real, to feel safe to express their authentic selves, to
explore, to play and to risk – a place where they can relax, release
tensions and open up. In short, they long to rehumanise their
workplaces. The concept of rehumanising explains how
knowledge worker resolve their concerns with the dehumanising
impact of a changing knowledge workplace – how they restore the
human dimension in their work relationships and working
environments. Rehumanising gives meaning to their work while
sustaining energy and commitment.

The Properties of Rehumanising

Rehumanising is characterised by authenticity, depth and
meaning, recognition and respect, safety and healing and kindred

The bureaucratic relationships in many knowledge
workplaces lack authenticity. They are power-laden transactions.
Whether the power can be attributed to position, influence or
alliance, the tensional shifts can leave individuals feeling uneasy,
anxious, without a base or grounding. The need to play roles in
organisations and to assume “corporate identities”’ also leads to
inauthentic voices; disconnecting individuals from what they
really feel. Identity and purpose in work are eroded as “everyone
plays the script”.

With increasing intensification and specialisation of
knowledge, workers are siloed. The time available for more
general interactions is reduced. Removing opportunities for
broad interpersonal contact further dehumanises the work
environment and reduces the potential for authentic engagement.
For many highly skilled knowledge workers, moving up in the
organisation has its down side as they find themselves taking on
managerial roles that progressively distance them from their
areas of specialised expertise. The stretch up the organisational
ladder can leave them vulnerable and stressed. There is a risk of
vulnerability, as well, in emotional disclosures in the workplace.
Individuals frequently feel they have to restrict emotional
displays or run the risk of being seen as weak – a vulnerability
that can restrict career progression. Emotions are held in check
and authenticity compromised.
Authenticity is highly valued as essential to sustained
interaction. Authentic engagement fuels likening and bonding,
facilitating an ease in working together and accelerating
collaboration. The rehumanising process in fluctuating support
networks aligns personal values and goals; these are places
where egos and agendas are put aside so that real dialogue and
caring for one another can prevail. Authenticity stretches the
ability to see diverse perspectives, to challenge assumptions,
discuss the undiscussable and examine sacred cows without the
worry of causing offence.
Fluctuating support network members express feelings of
deep connection to other members of their networks as well as to
the work in which they jointly engage. They speak of seeking
experiences that rise above the routine, that challenge and that
spark their learning. Work takes on real depth and meaning.
The connection goes beyond just accomplishing the task at hand.
Here, the work itself really matters. This deep connection creates
a stickiness that not only bonds individuals personally but also
deepens their bond to their professional concern. As such,
fluctuating support networks create “interspaces” (Nordanger,
2002) in professional work that enable knowledge workers to
regain some control over their work situations and ward off
intrusions that diminish creativity and well-being. Consequently,
they can dig deeper into their work, further enhancing their
commitment and enriching their knowledge and expertise.
Members describe the depth and meaning of their
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
participation in fluctuating support networks as being intense,
transformational, even life changing. Members speak of a strong
desire to stay connected with individuals who have travelled with
them through some tough times and to engage more deeply both
professionally and personally.
The depth of these connections is often difficult to express to
those outside the network and often results in their portrayal as
exclusive and overly emotional, even cult-like. It is true that
some networks can develop an almost tribal nature. This may be
particularly evident among core members of a network as the
individuals most committed to sustaining connections. This pull
to a tribal affiliation may also be indicative of the level of
dehumanisation that members have experienced in the
organisational jungle of their workplace environment. As such,
network ties may be a response to a felt need to band together for
Lack of opportunity and mobility frustrate knowledge
workers. While they have expertise, the layers of bureaucracy in
many knowledge organisations may impede their ability to use
their knowledge and experience. Without the opportunity to
utilise their knowledge and expertise, they experience no new
learning. Their ability to influence or make change is impeded.
They sense a loss of autonomy and agency. One high-level
knowledge specialist described the many layers of approval that
he had to observe in the conduct of his work and commented, “I’m
leaving because they have taken away the space for me to work”.
Fluctuating support networks add variety and challenge,
stimulating learning and creating the depth and meaning so
desirable to knowledge professionals.
Fluctuating support networks offer a new organisational
model where networked, lateral connections span boundaries and
level voices and power differentials to build effective relationships
with recognition and respect. These lateral transactions seed
new ideas and create an arena for growth and renewal. Networks
provide “neutral yet fertile” ground for hearing and respecting
diversity. Members are encouraged to express individual quirks
and creativity as adding value to network interactions.
I guess I really needed the validation of a group
that I am more than the narrow role I play a
work. To be described as an expert, wow, that’s
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
humbling and gratifying all at the same time.
Amazing how that opens one up to giving even
more, to exploring, sharing, learning even more,
honouring the experience and expertise in each of
As recognition and respect for the skills of other network
members accumulates, members come to know each other’s
strengths and limitations. They know who to access when needed
and how to leverage expertise. This enables them to call on and
utilise one another very effectively in advancing both individual
and joint enterprise.
Rehumanising offers safety and healing. Fluctuating
support networks are a safe place for expressing vulnerability
and building confidence; they serve as a respite from
organisational turbulence, providing insulation or protection in
unstable environments enabling members to cope with pressures
in their formal organisations. Networks provide solace, comfort
and tangible support; a place where members can let down their
guard and be ‘real’ with others who understand their stress and
needs. The emotional embrace resembles a family – a place to
feel comfort and reassurance when needed.
Network connectedness can also serve as an “early warning
system” for members, alerting them to potential problems or
changes in the organisational environment. There is safety in
numbers in times of uncertainty and subterfuge. Mutual support
enables members to deal with setbacks and feelings of cynicism
and frustration. Having a place to go where they can share
concerns and problems rehumanises their situation. Over time,
networks build social capital. Through participation members
earn credits, as in a mutual trust bank, which they can later
draw down as needed. Like a savings account that is healthy in
balance, network participation creates a sense of safety,
prosperity, well-being and progress for its members – an
investment in the future.
When members face tough situations, they turn to others
within the network for advice and support. They need objectivity
but they also need empathy and compassion. Kindred sharing
is the passionate reciprocation that takes place at the core of a
fluctuating support network. Through kindred sharing, network
members bond and develop mutual respect. They are able to
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
share on a level that exceeds the norm in their workplace
Sharing within the safe environment of the network becomes
a means of personal learning and growth. Honest opinions can be
sought and offered without the potential for collateral damage to
careers and reputations as might be the case in the formal
organisation. Members offer mutual support through disclosure,
exploration and shared understanding. Over time and with
regular interaction, the sharing gradually becomes more intimate
and more disclosing. This proves to be especially valuable when
the situations or decisions they face require real courage.
Members vent and release tensions; they move past venting to
problem solving in a supportive environment.
Kindred sharing creates an easy and open environment that
enables members to share ideas, generating an energy and
creativity that may yield moments of epiphany-like illumination.
These personal “Ahhas!” often become defining moments for the
network as a whole. Through kindred sharing, members can
move forward with confidence.
The Process of Rehumanising
The basic social psychological process of rehumanising
includes three stages – finding and likening, igniting passions
and mutual engagement. The finding and likening stage is a subcore
process that functions as an amplifying causal loop
characterised by the development of altruistic atmosphering,
connectedness and trust. As the level of altruistic atmosphering,
connectedeness and trust continues to build, or amplify, members
move easily into the second stage of the rehumanising process –
igniting passions. This stage has a catalytic effect on both the
finding and likening stage as well as the third stage of the
rehumanising process – mutual engagement. This third stage is
also a sub-core process that functions as an amplifying causal
loop characterised by creativity, challenge, experimentation and
learning. As the catalytic middle stage, igniting passions
facilitates the symbiotic relationship, continuous amplification
and interdependent functioning of the sub-core processes of
finding and likening and mutual engagement. Its dynamic
capacity sustains the overall rehumanising process by
continuously generating confidence, energy, commitment and
bonding among network members.
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
Finding and Likening
Fluctuating support network members find each other in
various ways and through disparate connections made over time.
They may be introduced through mutual connections. They may
find each other through reputation. Frequent interactions build
connections. Members discover mutual interests and needs.
Once reputation and credibility have been established,
invitations to work collaboratively are readily offered and
accepted. Through mutuality, members develop a rhythm in
relating to one another. They identify areas of agreement and
alignment. The experiences they share become the basis for a
developing sense of mutual values, principles and responsibilities.
Mutuality accelerates when members experience a psychic
connect – an instant attraction where they sense that “this feels
right” or “oh, you’re one of us”. Even though such encounters are
generally relaxed and informal, when individuals experience such
strong interpersonal chemistry, the attraction and desire to
network is strong.
…we’re bumping up against each other and
recognising that we are related. We share
interests, passions, values, connections and
experiences. It’s a process of bonding…like family.
Psychic connects go beyond the intellectual. Individuals
often speak of them as deep and intuitive. While members may
not be able to rationalise this deeper sense of connection, they
recognise it; they value the magic and the acceptance and
assurance it offers.
Likening is the mutual attraction that develops between and
among network members once they have found each other. It is
the instinctual and emotive recognition of like minds – a
recognition and excitement that creates the desire to connect and
work together. Likening generates an authentic, reciprocal
connection that builds respect and trust and removes the
defensiveness that is so often a response to change and to new
workplace situations. Likening opens conversations, reducing
resistance and enabling engagement.
Dedication to a mutual purpose is important to sustaining
interactions and fostering likening. The more frequent the
interactions and the more open the communication, the more
potential exists for building strong bonds. These attachments are
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
the means by which likening develops into kindred sharing.
The initial toning of network relationships facilitates
likening and fosters mutuality. Network members often identify
in each other mutual or complementary interests and skills that
enable them to work comfortably together and add value to each
other’s work and respective reputations. A synergy develops and
the association is experienced as “enjoyment and power”. The
desire to experience this enjoyment and power will motivate
individuals to seek out or create additional opportunities for
The likening in fluctuating support network relationships
contributes to rehumanising by creating altruistic atmosphering,
connectedness and trust. Members comment on the “magic” in
network interactions in contrast to formal work groups where
they feel no sense of camaraderie. They speak of the joy and the
sense of belonging. Networking takes them out of day-to-day
busywork and gives them a place and space to think and reflect.
The esprit de corps is non-judgmental, enabling the sharing of
information and diverse perspectives and generally supporting
the personal and professional development of members. Members
describe the atmosphere as creating real community.
Likening facilitates a connectedness that deepens network
interaction, overcoming the sense of isolation that many
knowledge workers experience. Connectedness strengthens and
sustains network interactions. As connectedness builds,
interaction increases and the nature of the connections change.
Network bonds become sticky, creating a perpetual connectedness
as single dimension sharing transcends to a deeper personal
connection. The desire to maintain connections is both personal
and professional. Members comment on the quality of their
network relationships as being both intellectually and socially
stimulating. Once authentic connections are made, the network
can fluctuate without fear as members know it will persist.
The deeply personal nature of this perpetual connectedness
transcends the professional level. As such, it has the potential to
undermine organisational affiliations and corporate intelligence.
This poses potential challenges to the management of knowledge
workers and the knowledge and intellectual property to which
they are privy.
Connectedness within a network does not rule out individual
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
work. While mutual engagement is a significant outcome of
fluctuating networks, individual members continue to work
independently and call upon the network when needed.
Connectedness builds over time as members experience repeated
opportunities for mutual engagement. Lack of opportunities for
mutual engagement will restrict connectedness. There is a
recognition that membership will fluctuate as some members
move on and new members enter the network domain but, at the
same time, there is a confidence in the network’s stability once a
core group has emerged. Connectedness is particularly strong
within a core group.
Trust is both antecedent to likening as well as an outcome.
Individuals seek out those with whom they can develop a basic
level of comfort and trust. Often, there may be some
commonality in terms of organisational position, professional
interests, values, knowledge or skills that promotes initial
sharing and facilitates further interaction. Trust is cyclic; it
facilitates likening and, as also an outcome of likening, it fosters
kindred sharing and bonding.
Fluctuating support networks may compensate for the
chronic irritations of low trust levels within knowledge
workplaces (Ganester, Schaubroeck, Sime, & Mayes, 1990).
Members value deeply the trust placed in them by others in the
network. They strive to validate that trust and demonstrate
mutual commitment. Reciprocity of trust and commitment builds
between members.
Over time, however, likening can lead to exclusivity in
relationships. As network members liken, they build a repertoire
of shared history that inevitably includes inside jokes and stories.
This helps to bond the network and create boundaries around
membership, defining who belongs and who does not. While
facilitating inter-network relationships, it can serve as a barrier
to those outside the network, creating resentment and feelings of
exclusivity or jealousy that may work against the vitality and
sustainability of the network over time.
Igniting Passions
As likening develops, passions ignite, creating energy for
sustaining interaction and mutual engagement. This passion
opens up possibilities and creates excitement, igniting the desire
for exploration, learning and sharing. They value meeting others
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
who share a sense of energy and who are open to sharing their
knowledge and skills. The dynamic interplay between passion
and likening can feel out of control at times, but in a good way.
Network members speak of reconnecting with previous dream
jobs, with core values, interests and passions through their
network experiences. Individual skills and abilities are
stimulated by joint problem solving and collaborative creativity.
The more members liken, the more passion is ignited and the
more passion, the more likening is reinforced and increased.
In igniting passions, fluctuating support networks bring
vocational passion into relief in an organisation. The
unpredictability of their self-organising nature also creates
energy. The fast pace required in responding to opportunities as
they emerge creates excitement and stimulates further
networking. The resultant tension is an enjoyable anxiety.
Members describe it as edgy and stimulating:
What excites me is the pace of it. I like that, I like
the energy it gives me and the energy it creates so
I like it fast not slow…. I think it’s very
important. It feels like a life! Ahh.. sometimes it’s
too much for sure but I’ll take any day of too much
than too little.
The energy and synergy from mutual engagement fuel the
desire to continue networking. There is a strong sense of fun, of
pushing the envelope. There is little pretence or showiness in
network interactions. Participation is rooted in purpose, value
and meaning for those engaged. Yet, at the same time, it is fun.
Members enjoy the action, the inevitable debates. In this
stimulating environment, work advances and progress is made.
Igniting passions serves as the catalyst for moving a network
from the process of finding and likening into the process of
mutual engagement. As in the finding and likening stage,
mutual engagement is also an amplifying causal loop that
stimulates the catalytic effect of igniting passions while also
building individual and collective confidence, re-energising
mutual engagement, building commitment and reinforcing
network bonds. By extension, mutual engagement also reamplifies
the finding and likening process loop thereby
facilitating network sustainability.
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
Mutual Engagement
Members of fluctuating support networks may bring diverse
backgrounds and interests but they can develop a strong desire to
work together to achieve a common goal. The goal may be
practice enhancement, development of a joint project or a
professional collaboration. There is recognition of the range and
depth of talent within the network and a desire for mutual
engagement to leverage that capacity. There is excitement in the
potential to move the group ahead and to achieve collective
potential. Members treasure the experience, both for the
socialisation and for the work achieved.
I also enjoyed the problem solving. I like building
things, making things. So, it was both the
creating something and then getting down to
doing it, making it happen.
Mutual engagement through fluctuating networks enhances
problem solving by offering expertise and new perspectives that
individual knowledge workers may not possess. Such access can
enhance the efficiency and quality of problem solving outcomes.
Enhanced outcomes build both individual and collective
Fluctuating support networks keep personal and
professional passions from being eroded and even depleted in the
hectic humdrum of daily organisational life. Networks follow a
simple principle of self-organisation as members allocate energy
to follow their passions. “If no one has passion, we should not be
doing it.” On the other hand, attempts to force regular
engagement may actually reduce network participation over time.
Force produces strained participation that undermines network
vitality. It ends up feeling like work.
While social connections that rehumanise are a strong
motivator for network participation, the real key to sustained
network participation is the interplay between fulfilling
rehumanising needs and bringing tangible value to the
professional development of network members. Active
participation fluctuates, coalescing when need arises or mutual
interest culminates but remaining latent in the interim,
functioning as an intelligent subsystem that monitors and alerts
members of a call to action. Engagement is readily mobilised
when opportunity or need is expressed by one or more members.
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
Mutual engagement provides the arena for the release of
collective creativity. It offers challenge, experimentation and
learning. Mutual engagement builds confidence, commitment and
energy. It enhances the bonding of network members.
The passions that ignite in a fluctuating support network
spark creativity. Argument and debate also ignite passions in
networks. Such intensity generates the creativity and problem
solving power of the collective mindset in a network. It’s part of
the fluctuating nature of the network.
You can do creative things. You can do interesting
things and you don’t have to be doing routine
stuff…. It’s the excitement of creating something
new. I think that really matters to each of us….
It’s what we share.
Fluctuating support networks challenge members to give
their best. There is an expectation to do so and the support for
stretching oneself. There is respect for taking a stand and
challenging others in the network as well. Members recognise
their personal power in challenging themselves and others and
they develop a level of comfort in doing so more readily.
… it’s the fun of it, the challenge of it… so you ask
me why I say vibrant, I think at times, just
scratching our heads about how we’re going to do
this… what’s going to work, won’t this work, what
are we doing… so, it’s just like creativeness, I
think that’s what … as I look back on this… that
was the charge in it.
Part of the value of networking is attributed to being tested
and being able to sustain the effort by mixing the hard work with
fun. Members express their enjoyment in the social and
intellectual stimulation of networking but occasionally admit to
feeling challenged intellectually. This is the stretch that
fluctuating support networks can offer. The slogging actually
serves to bond network members. While there is always a fear of
failure mixed with the potential high of success. The higher the
stakes; the greater the passion. Members thrive on that feeling of
being on the edge. The challenge of risk and achievement can be
very empowering. Success is sweetest when shared.
Fluctuating support networks also provide opportunities for
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
experimentation, as places to try new things, to learn new skills,
to have fun and to move past the strictures of formal
organisational environments. Members describe their networks
as practice fields where they are able to stretch their boundaries
and take risks in an environment of trust. They speak of bringing
what they have been exploring “out there” into the network, of
testing assumptions. Ideas percolate throughout the network.
Members are open to trying something new. They are not
intimidated by the potential for making mistakes. It is seen as
preferable to make a mistake than to do nothing. The atmosphere
is open for experimentation and thereby innovation.
… because of the charting of new ground… we
had to figure out a lot of stuff… there was nothing
to go on… there was no model to adopt or
emulate… We blew a lot of things… things we
didn’t do well but, nonetheless, it was trying to
sort them through that was the fun. And having
a real success, yeah… that would keep us going.
Collaborative creativity is increasingly important in complex
knowledge work. Siloed knowledge workers find such networks
an invaluable venue for experimentation. The more specialised
their expertise or independent their work roles, the more
valuable network opportunities become.
Individual passion for learning is stimulated and reinforced
in a network. There is a strong sense of collective wisdom
resident and accessible within the membership. Access to
expertise that enhances learning is a powerful motivator for
participation. Within networks, established participants mentor
new members by sharing their knowledge and expertise. The
altruistic atmosphere enables open sharing of ideas and concerns
and fosters respect for a diversity of perspectives. The
opportunity to learn together is both enjoyable and valuable.
Learning transcends the individual to encompass the collective.
Network members coach each other in applying new learning and
maintain an interest in each other’s progress.
The learning that results from taking on new challenges
within a network adds depth and meaning to work. Restless
organisational spirits are sated by continuous opportunities for
reciprocal learning and sharing, getting past disengagement and
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
non-performance, reminding individuals of when they “had a real
hunger for their work”.
Networking builds individual and group confidence by
fulfilling both ego and achievement needs. Confidence builds as
network members pursue opportunities to test themselves. The
testing may be of skill, knowledge or values. Confidence builds
I knew it was time to stand up and be counted. I
also saw the impact we had by voicing our
concerns, making recommendations and
ultimately making things happen.
Members view their networks as a means to facilitate their
commitment to personal and professional growth. Commitment
comes from the depth and meaning of interaction. It feeds a
passion that is shared by members and sustains network
Tremendous energy is generated through fluctuating support
network connections. Members describe their participation as
revitalising. There is an infectious lunacy to the interaction, to
the give and take. The adrenaline fix of igniting passions
energizes network members and leaves them wanting more. Once
established, the energy of network interactions can sustain a
network. Even the removal or fading away of core or initial
members will not threaten continuation of the network if the
energy is there.
The passion that brings network members together is also
the glue that bonds the network. Trust is the moderating factor in
network bonding. Through sustained mutual engagement, ready
trust is established within the network, facilitating participation
in additional collaborative ventures. Once members have bonded,
they stay connected even though they may move off into new
organisations. There is an attraction to staying connected and to
sustaining trusted bonds. It is a desire to re-experience the
energy and excitement of the network connection.
Implications for Management Practice
This study contributes to management praxis by raising
awareness and offering insights into the practical value of
fluctuating support networks as psychological infrastructure for
rehumanising knowledge work. As an informal response to the
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
formal organisation, fluctuating support networks deviate from
the conventions of the formal organisation, providing 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
organisational goals, especially those goals that require crossfunctional
integration and non-conventional perspectives to
address increasingly complex organisational problems. Adopting
the basic social process of rehumanising as a conceptual
framework may assist managers and human resource
professionals in developing organisational strategies that support
a broader humanistic paradigm.
In particular, the theory of fluctuating support networks
offers valuable insights on several issues of specific significance to
management praxis in knowledge-based organisations:
Learning and Innovation
Much of the challenge in knowledge work is the quest for
innovation through complex problem solving. In contrast to
routine work, innovative work requires scope for experimentation
and flexibility of structures and operations (Szeto, 2000; Zaltman,
Duncan, & Holbeck, 1973). Leveraging knowledge and wisdom is
widely recognised as the key to competitive advantage and even
organisational survival, yet this intangible asset is not readily
accessible through the traditional channels of the formal
organisation (Wenger & Snyder, 2000).
By serving as venues for creative, imaginative and
unconventional thinking, fluctuating support networks offer
knowledge workers a practice field for the experimentation and
flexibility that enables innovation. Rehumanising through
fluctuating support networks re-ignites passion for creative
engagement, offsetting the anxiety often associated with learning
and change (Schein, 1992). The process of mutual engagement
facilitates the creative process, building confidence while
incubating innovative ideas until opportunities arise to introduce
them into the formal organisation. From an organisational
perspective, fluctuating support networks can be viewed as an
emergent self-organising parallel learning system (Bushe and
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
Shani, 1991) that operates not as a replacement for, but as an
informal supplement to the formal organisation, preparing the
ground for learning in organisations by promoting co-operative
peer group inquiry for both support and challenge (Reason, 1999).
By building trustful relationships over time, networks can
enhance organisational learning (Floren & Tell, 2004).
Job Security, Recruitment and Retention
Recruitment and retention has emerged as a significant
human resource management challenge, ahead of compensation
and opportunity for advancement (Galt, 2003). The rise of nonstandard
work arrangements have increased perceived job
insecurity (Parker, 1994), leading to job dissatisfaction and
reducing organisational commitment which, in turn, can result in
increased employee turnover (Ashford, Lee, & Bobko, 1989; Davy,
Kinicki, & Scheck, 1991). The lack of a secure employment
relationship creates a sense of alienation and loss of meaning in
the workplace. Mobility and turnover in organisations may be
moderated by secure anchorage in a primary group that supports
the beliefs, feelings and ideas of members (Bennis, Berkowitz,
Affinito, & Malone, 1968). Fluctuating support networks,
particularly intra-organisational networks, may well serve as
affinity groups offering a sense of belonging and security to
organisational members.
Loyalty and Commitment
A requirement for sustaining any social system is a degree of
loyalty by its members and any threat to the system enhances
this requirement (Gouldner, 1968). At the same time, the
naturally cosmopolitan nature of highly specialised knowledge
workers will promote their engagement in fluctuating support
networks external to their organisations and thus potentially
place them in positions of being recruited away. A suggested
strategy is that of deepening the involvement of highly skilled
workers within the organisation to engender a sense of local
loyalty (Glaser, 1968). This local loyalty does not have to
embrace the organisation as a whole. Loyalty may exist at many
levels. Loyalty to a small work unit or an informal internal
network may be sufficient to sustain commitment to the formal
organisation. Thus, the existence of fluctuating support networks
within the organisation may substantially support local loyalties,
even in times of organisational threat or uncertainty.
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
Such membership is a way of reconceptualising the
psychological contract between individuals and their
organisations, with knowledge workers holding twin citizenship
within the organisation and within their smaller work units
(Handy, 1994). Loyalty to smaller units fosters liberty, incentive
and initiative, while loyalty to the organisation mitigates
duplication, inefficiency and misunderstanding. Fluctuating
support networks offer knowledge workers a source of continuity
and connection that many indicate they no longer experience in
their organisations. Managers would be wise to leverage this
subsidiary contribution while focusing organisational efforts on
developing the third sense that knowledge workers espouse in
their search for meaning in their work – that of direction or
mission (Handy, 1994).
Employee Involvement and Productivity
Employee involvement is crucial to knowledge organisations,
as effort remains largely discretionary in knowledge work
(Belanger, 2000). The concept of workplace democracy gives
workers more autonomy and control over their work and their
work environments (Semler, 1994, 2004). At the same time, it is
worth noting that the move to greater involvement of nonmanagerial
workers in the organisation and co-ordination of work
may contribute to work intensification (Belanger, 2000).
Fluctuating support networks enable a degree of selforganisation,
autonomy and control for knowledge workers while
also moderating potentially stressful impacts of work
Stress and Satisfaction at Work
Workers in high-strain jobs have higher rates of disease than
their counterparts in low-strain jobs. In fact, health care
expenditures are nearly fifty per cent greater for workers who
report high levels of stress. Stress can also result in increased
absenteeism and decline in productivity (Williams, 2003).
Organisations that demand next to nothing of individuals
can alienate and repress creative ability; but organisations that
demand everything of individuals destroy autonomy and
particularity with questionable demands made on an individual’s
time, psychic stability and social development (Leitche & van
Hattem, 2000).
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
… most often the sources of disengagement from a
job don’t involve salary and benefits, but things
that managers do have control over, such as
providing challenge, meaningful work and
opportunities to learn and gain recognition.
(Immen, 2004)
Rehumanising through fluctuating support networks holds
both healing and revitalising potential for knowledge workers.
Participation enables knowledge workers to better manage the
stressful impact of a dehumanised workplace environment,
establish supportive relationships and re-ignite their passion and
energy for work. The residual benefit to the formal organisation
should serve as sufficient incentive for any manager to develop an
understanding of the significant role and value that fluctuating
support networks offer for rehumanising knowledge work.
Methodological Notes
The individuals who participated in this study were drawn
from a range of public and professional sectors including
secondary and post secondary education, nursing, medicine,
social work, corporate training and development and
management consultancy. Consistent with the parameters
offered by Brint (2001) and Pyroria (2005) to define knowledge
work and knowledge workers, the work of study participants
requires the creative and innovative application of expert
knowledge to the solution of organisationally contingent issues.
Such issues routinely emerge as a result of persistent change and
the application of new technologies and work processes that
demand continuous adaptation, learning and collaborative
problem solving. In summary, 61 individuals participated in the
study; 27 through personal interviews with an additional 34
individuals participating in focus group sessions. These data
sources were augmented with additional data from participant
observations and casual conversations with knowledge workers
as opportunities arose during the course of the study.
Judith A. Holton, M.A., Ph.D.
Editor-in-Chief, The Grounded Theory Review
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
Ashford, S., Lee, C., & Bobko, P. (1989). Content causes, and
consequences of job insecurity: A theory-based measure
and substantive test. Academy of Management Journal,
Belanger, J. (2000). The influence of employee involvement in
productivity: A review of research. Workplace Gazette,
4(4), 65-79.
Bennis, W. G., Berkowitz, N., Affinito, M., & Malone, M. (1968).
Reference groups and loyalties in the out-patient
department. In B. G. Glaser (Ed.), Organizational careers:
A sourcebook for theory (pp. 170-174). Chicago: Aldine
Publishing Company.
Bovey, W. H., & Hede, A. (2001). Resistance to organisational
change: The role of defence mechanisms. Journal of
Managerial Psychology, 16(7), 534-548.
Brint, S. (2001). Professionals and the ‘knowledge economy’:
Rethinking the theory of postindustrial society. Current
Sociology, 49(4), 101-132.
Bushe, G. R., & Shani, A. B. R. (1991). Parallel learning
structures: Increasing innovation in bureaucracies.
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Cappelli, P. (2004). Why do employers retrain at-risk workers?
The role of social capital. Industrial Relations, 43(2), 421-
Chakravorti, B. (2004). The new rules for bringing innovations to
market. Harvard Business Review, 82(3), 58-67.
Davy, J., Kinicki, A., & Scheck, C. (1991). Developing and testing
a model of survivor responses to layoffs. Journal of
Vocational Behaviour, 38, 302-317.
DeMeuse, K., & Marks, M. L. (Eds.). (2002). Resizing the
organization: Managing layoffs, divestitures and closings.
San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
Drucker, P. F. (2002). They’re not employees: They’re people.
Harvard Business Review, 80(2), 70-77.
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
Fleming, P., & Spicer, A. (2003). Working at a cynical distance:
Implications for power, subjectivity and resistance.
Organization, 10(1), 157-179.
Floren, H., & Tell, J. (2004). The emergent prerequisites of
managerial learning in small firm networks. The
Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 25(3),
Foley, J. (2002). Has work intensified in Canada? Paper
presented at the Association of Administrative Sciences
2002 Conference, Winnipeg, MB.
Galt, V. (2002, May 15). Staff buy-in eases major change. Globe
and Mail, pp. C1.
Galt, V. (2003, September 23). Survey: The future of work – a
decade of change. Globe and Mail, pp. C1,C10.
Ganester, D. C., Schaubroeck, J., Sime, W. E., & Mayes, B. T.
(1990). Unhealthy leader dispositions, work group strain
and performance: Best Papers Proceedings Academy of
Glaser, B. G. (1968). Organizational careers: A sourcebook for
theory. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.
Gouldner, A. W. (1968). Cosmopolitan and locals. In B. G. Glaser
(Ed.), Organizational careers: A sourcebook for theory (pp.
164-169). Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.
Handy, C. (1994). The Age of Paradox. Boston: Harvard Business
School Press.
Immen, W. (2004, June 16). Managers hold key to keep staff
happy. Globe and Mail, pp. C3.
Kirkbride, P., & Durcan, J. (2002, April 15-16). Can mature
organisations really transform themselves? Or are we just
wasting our time? Paper presented at the HRM in a
Changing World Conference, Oxford, UK.
Leitche, H., & van Hattem, R. (2000). Self and organization:
Knowledge work and fragmentation. Journal of
Organizational Change Management, 13(4), 352-374.
MacNeil, C. M., & Renwick, D. (2002, April 15-16). Breaking
through or breaking down?: Towards an improved
The Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
understanding of the trend for the devolution of HRM
functions to line managers in organisations. Paper
presented at the HRM in a Changing World Conference,
Oxford, UK.
Nordanger, U. K. (2002). Teachers’ recess periods: Content in
interspaces. Unpublished PhD, Malmo University,
Parker, R. E. (1994). Flesh peddlars and warm bodies: The
temporary help industry and its workers. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Pascale, R. (1994). Transformation [Video]. London: BBC.
Pepper, L. D., & Messinger, M. (2000b). The impact of downsizing
and reorganization on employee health and well-being at
the DOE Pantex Plant (Brief report of Research Grant
Findings). Cincinnati, OH: National Institute for
Occupational Safety and Health.
Pittinsky, T. L., & Shih, M. J. (2004). Knowledge nomads:
Organizational commitment and worker mobility in
positive perspective. American Behavioural Scientist,
46(6), 791-807.
Pyroria, P. (2005). The concept of knowledge work revisited.
Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(3). 116-127.
Reason, P. (1999). Integrating action and reflection through cooperative
inquiry. Management Learning, 30(2), 207-226.
Schein, E. H. (1992). Organizational culture and leadership (2nd.
ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Semler, R. (1994). Maverick: The success story behind the world’s
most unusual workplace: Warner Books, Inc.
Semler, R. (2004). The seven-day weekend: Changing the way
work works. London: Century.
Sullivan, S. E. (1999). The changing nature of careers: A review
and research agenda. Journal of Management, 25(3), 457-
Szeto, E. (2000). Innovative Capacity: Working towards a
mechanism for improving innovation within an interThe
Grounded Theory Review (2007), vol.6, no.2
organizational network. The TQM Magazine 12(2), 149-
Vahtera, J., Kivimaki, M., Pentti, J., Linna, A., Virtanen, M.,
Virtanen, P., & Ferrie, J. E. (2004). Organisational
downsizing, sickness absence, and mortality: 10-town
prospective cohort study [Online paper]. BMJ Publishing
Group Ltd. Retrieved August 30, 2004, from the World
Wide Web:
Wenger, E. C., & Snyder, W. M. (2000). Communities of practice:
The organizational frontier. Harvard Business Review,
78(1), 139-145.
Williams, C. (2003). Stress at work. Canadian Social Trends (70),
Zaltman, G., Duncan, R. & Holbeck, J. (1973). Innovations in
organizations. New York: Wiley.