Turning Informal Networks into Formal Ones

October 17, 2007 at 2:36 pm | Posted in collaboration, knowledge management, social software | Leave a comment

McKinsey has just authored another article in what could be considered a series on collaboration in organizations. The first two (“Mapping the Value of Employee Collaboration” and “Competitive Advantage From Better Interactions”) were very good at articulating the value of collaboration from a point of view (and a source) that business executives can understand. I use them frequently when setting the stage for the usefulness of collaboration technology at an infrastructure level (in other words, not applied to a specific one-off project).

But I’m not as thrilled about the next in the series. The new article is about formal networks, but is called “Harnessing the power of informal employee networks”. The change in nomenclature comes about because the authors’ answer to how to harness the power of informal networks is to make them formal.

After describing how prevalent, necessary, and useful informal networks are, the article describes how they can be made more useful by providing a leader (“coordinator” is a better term since the person has no managerial authority), a budget, evaluation measures, and IT resources (wikis, document libraries, and the like).

There’s no doubt in my mind that the type of formal network they describe is better than the matrix org chart they say it replaces. And for companies that have no similar mechanism in place (centers of excellence, communities, sponsored “birds of a feather” get-togethers), a formal network would certainly be an improvement.

But I think a formal network is just one type of network or community and that the authors should have been more careful to acknowledge that and provide tips for differentiating which networks are appropriate for formalizing and which aren’t.

I also felt the article did not address several tricky issues related to the formation and subsequent growth of the network such as:

  • Does one wait for networks to self-organize and then (at what point?) jump in and pave the cowpaths by making it formal?
  • How comfortable can members be about leaving the network if they do not see the value?
  • How to people outside the network petition to join?
  • Given how the article demonstrates the importance of a “linchpin” in a network, how does the network retain resiliency in the case that the leader/linchpin is a jerk?
  • In what cases should an informal network be left alone and not formalized?

Overall I still believe the article to be a good one. It’s based on a lot of research whereas my observations are based on a 12 page summary, personal experience, and gut feel so I may not be capturing the whole essence of their points. And I do think formal networks are a very valuable form of network. Just not the only form of network.

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