"Latent structure is the master of obvious structure."
This aphorism from Heraclitus (by way of Philip K. Dick) reminds me of something that I've experienced in every place in which I've worked. (Okay, let's say every organization up to 200 or so people.) And that's the fact that there are probably about half a dozen middle managers whom everyone turns to when they need to get something done. It can be an entry level person looking for advice, or a C-level executive who needs to pitch new business. The same half dozen names will probably come up in both kinds of conversations.
I suppose there's an analogue to this in Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point hypothesis – some individuals have an inordinate amount of influence because of the sheer number of people they know – but it's not so much about how connected these people are. It's about their competence and understanding of the business they're in.
I don't know how you identify them except through working with them. You have to spend time in the organization before they become apparent. And then suddenly their value will simply be obvious to you because they make things happen on a daily basis. They fix problems and keep things moving. Whatever the official workflow process is, these people are the actual process.
When one of them quits, chances are it's a far bigger loss to the organization than losing one of the head honchos. Something basic about how the place does business is lost; a bunch of relationships and experiences and knowledge and process is also gone. And because (in my experience anyway) there are only a handful of them it doesn't take much to shift the balance in a workplace. One or two of these folks leave and you go from a happy, kickass business to lethargy and confusion, a place where people are merely doing their jobs.
Conversely, if you can add a couple of folks like this to your organization, you've just increased your chances of success. They'll bring new life to your existing processes and culture. The place will work better, without any business process re-engineering or operational reviews or (ack) consultants.
If you're one of the folks sitting at the top of the org chart, I don't know how you identify these people. But you have to be trying to find them. You have to understand that they are, if not the backbone of the organization, at least the muscle, the blood, the life of it.
Re-reading this today, that may be the goofiest, most pedantic intro to a blog post ever written. You guys out in Blogland should feel free to start calling me on stuff like that.