Monday, January 24, 2011

The Value of Informal Networks

Formal networks are easy to discover, just read the official documentation that describes an organization, its structure, beliefs and practices.  Formal networks are intentionally designed, developed, sanctioned, implemented and dictated.  Formal networks work through command and control and tend to resist change and stifle creativity.  When an organization needs to makes changes, however, it does so to the components of its formal networks.

Informal networks are quite different.  They are not part of the official sanctioning and dictation of an organization, rather they emerge and organize within and between the walls of the formal networks.  They have a type of gravity related to common interest and are not constructed from outside in, but tend to grow organically from within.  Informal networks are social and can be collaborative, problem solving, efficient, effective and innovative.  In most organizations these networks, if not purely social, form around common the same concerns that occupy organizational efforts – working more efficiently and effectively, addressing an issue, etc.  The major difference is the concern is an individual concern, it is personal.  How can “I” find more time, how can “I” eliminate this grief, who else has this problem, and who can “I” talk to?   This is why, thorough an informal network, resources can be borrowed, perhaps to help out in a crunch, but organizationally, that same resource shows as fully loaded – the resource manager fears losing a good resource permanently to the efforts of the “greater good”.

Because of their nature; emergence, self-organizing, organic, non-hierarchical, informal networks can be hotbeds of innovation.  They are much more loosely structured than the organization, giving them more speed, adaptability and agility.  By being self-organizing, those who choose to stay in the network – for their own “selfish” interests – are, by virtue of participation, invested as enabled constituents.  Informal networks are egalitarian; they tend to distribute power, rights, responsibilities and rewards.  Their strategies are not deliberate, but emergent and opportunistic. 

Much can be learned by studying the informal networks in your organization.  The key is not to kill them off while finding a way to embed them into corporate structure.  To me, this means redesigning the corporation to behave more like informal networks, not redesigning informal networks to behave like the organization.

Tidbits and Takeaways:

·         Informal networks exist and form perhaps the most vital part of an organization.
·         Leverage informal networks to understand how things get done well and remember that….
·         Attempts to formalize these groups often sap them of their strength.
·         Learn from them and use them as a model for change.
·         Knowledge workers and managers don’t have a monopoly on valuable informal networks.