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Saturday, October 06, 2007

The power of informal networks

I note that McKinsey have over the weekend released access to a piece of work by Lowell Bryan et al regarding the harnessing the power of informal employee networks.

All knowledge managers are aware of the existence of these networks in an organisation which for a variety of reasons such as self interest or just interest in a topic leads people to share ideas and to collaborate which as I have discussed before can not only help knowledge sharing but also innovation in a business.

One of the reasons for this as the article states is that it extends collaboration beyond the departmental silo walls as peoples interests are not just restricted to their departmental ones.

There is a lot of supporting literature on this point and I when carrying out a knowledge audit was looking to identify these employee networks and there has also been good work by Verna Allee in this area as well as the classic article by Etienne Wenger.

The article does recognise the role of the boundary spanner who has power in the group because of connections and not their formal position in the official hierarchy. The boundary spanner is a well known concept in KM because of their connections and abiility to cross silos and to put people in touch with other parties not always covered by the formal hierarchy.

See the picture below

The article goes on to say that these groups tend to be serendipitous in nature and that they can't be managed. I would agree that they can't be managed in terms of typical command and control, but they can be encouraged with light touch management and an interest.

Though one of my recommendations sadly not taken up by one organisation, was to utilise slightly more formal networks which could harness the advantages of the informal network. These could cover a variety of areas such as improving technical knowledge, but also how to improve client service or improve knowledge in a particular sector or finally looking forward to examine trends that might affect the business in the future.

It was to have as the article suggests a leader - but I would say that the leader needs to be appointed by the team and not relying on formal authority but maybe on expertise or get-along ability. I had also devised ways that provided training for people in how to run one of these groups but not too overly bureaucratise it.

I would like to let it loose on a variety of subjects and give it a blog or a wiki that it could use to capture its thoughts and it's history. It also gets round the problem of loads of e-mails that clog up a system and are too unstructured to capture the groups thoughts and knowledge.

The approach to use a wiki, would trigger off a support system and allow management to lightly monitor the setting up of these groups. More support would be used if say for example funds were needed and also some agreement as to objectives for the group and it's leader.

I think that the article is interesting though it needs to recognise that a lightness of touch is needed with these groups rather than a heavy hand for using these within a traditional organisation. Good informal networks as on something like Facebook have a centripetal force that attracts participants to it - and poor ones with little or no interactions tend to wither on the vine. I'd be happy to talk to people about my experiences in this area and some of my proposals for improving these communities in their business.

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