Within networks, individuals can play a number of different communication roles. Individuals with weak ties are valuable because they are boundary spanners. Sales personnel in the field are boundary spanners for many firms; as customer relations specialists, they play a critical role in customer satisfaction and in identifying new product needs and competitive threats.
Other communication roles include gatekeepers, stars, and isolates, as explained below.
A secretary who decides what matters are to be brought to his boss's attention is the most common form of gatekeeper. Others include receptionists, nurses, and all other intermediaries between one individual and another. Having information provides power for the person holding the information; consequently, gatekeepers often are very powerful people. Some evidence suggests that new information often comes to organizations in a two-step flow, coming first to a gatekeeper who is tied both to the external environment and to the organization, and then going directly to others in the organization. More recent research indicates a multi-step flow in which information goes from the source to others, perhaps opinion leaders, and from them filters to yet others.
As environmental uncertainty increases, organizations create more gatekeepers. One public utility, facing a bewildering array of uncertainties ranging from regulatory policy to rapidly changing energy economics to local politics, created a network of employees who agreed to serve as "environmental scanners." Their job was to be on a more or less continual lookout for emerging issues that might affect the utility's operation. Systems were put in place for the scanners to regularly review certain publications or other information sources and report them to a central clearinghouse, which had the responsibility for either analyzing the issues or assigning them to their units for analysis. In this manner the utility hoped to heighten its sensitivity to its changing environment.
Stars are cluster members who are seen by others in the organization as having the most influence and who are the focus of most of the communication. In all likelihood stars become stars by reciprocating communication attempts: when someone communicates with them, they respond. Recall at we earlier said about information as a source of power. Stars have this s6urce available to them.
Isolates are involved in almost no network communication. Isolates, with few contacts in their organizations, should concern managers. Although isolation is typical of certain jobs, such as computer programmer or night watchman, it can also indicate dissociation with the organization. Absence of communication can lead to alienation. In a study of isolation and participation in military organizations, researchers found that isolates were younger, lower-ranking, less-educated personnel. They were also less satisfied and less committed to the military and performed their jobs more poorly than active participants. Often, managers can take steps to bring isolates back into the mainstream of organizational life and improve their functioning by doing so.