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The Hidden Power of Who Matters
Monday, August 01, 2005
Today I finished reading The Hidden Power of Social Networks by Rob Cross (no relaiton) and Andrew Parker and Art Kleiner's Who Really Matters. Both books deal with the invisible, "real" organization that runs things.

As old control hierarchies become increasingly obsolete, what official organization charts look less and less like what's really going on. A shadow organization runs the show through an undocumented series of personal and professional relationships. Cross and Parker (2005, p. vii) describe studies that show that well-managed internal networks substantially impact performance, improve learning, and spark innovation.

The invisible social circuitry is how business gets done, yet many executives ignore it because they can't see it. They can't see the air they breathe either, but that's another story.

When I sold mainframes early in my career, it seemed to me that most of the value to the customer came from making what was to be automated explicit, patching up broken links between departments, and streamlining how work was being performed. Once this was accomplished, forklifts could bring the new computer gear into the air-conditioned room with the raised floor, but by then the true heavy-lifting was over.

I think social networking is in a similar point in its history. Assessing the quality and effectiveness of the patterns of information, guidance, and energy flowing through person-to-person networks is more than half the battle. The Hiddle Power of Social Networks is great for consciousness-raising, but if you're looking for state-of-the-art, the art's not quite ready for prime time.

Except for Art Kleiner, whose marvellous book Who Really Matters, tells a story you'll know if you've worked with large companies although you may have overlooked it at the time. Corporate leaders claim increasing shareholder value is the only item on their agenda. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. It's not that the company is footing the bill for the CEO's wife's $4 million birthday party in Sardinia. Rather, it's allegiance to a “Core Group” within the company that makes the decisions, exchanging the gift of direction to workers in return for the workers' loyalty that legitimizes the group. Totally undocumented, the Core Group's perceived needs, desires, and priorities give the rest of the organization its marching orders.

A couple of years ago, I met a Stanford sociology professor named Mark Granovetter. While a graduate student, Mark studied how people landed new jobs. The job-hunting books are right: people find job opportunities through personal contacts, not by answering ads and mass-mailing resumes.

Double-checking his findings, Mark fed back what he'd heard. “You found the job through a friend.” Well, no, not exactly. Almost every time, the job came from a personal contact who was more a friend-of-a-friend. Your immediate circle know the same people and organizations that you do; they're not much help when you're searching for something new. The circles of your friends, however, include people who are tied into other networks. You have weak ties to these people but they know people from hobby groups, sports, clubs, bridge parties, swap meets, wine tastings, topless bars, and professional groups.

Mark is now famed for recognizing the “strength of weak ties.” It's not who you know that's important; it's who they know. This holds true in the functioning of organizations, too, but until now, few people actually mapped out the relationships of their people, and you generally can't see the second-tier folks.

Reflect on your relationships at work. Sure, you can come up with the 1:1 people, but how far down the chain of contacts can you go? If you're like most of us, you're not that aware of the membership of your potential network.

Social network analysts talk of nodes and connectors, but it quickly becomes more complicated than that. Social networks are dynamic, shifting in response to changes in contacts, job requirements, and strategies. Not only that, but people are not Cisco routers. What comes out of a person differs from what went in. Remember the kid's game where you whisper a sentence from one chid to another. The result is always a surprise. Imagine doing this amid turf wars and hidden agendas.

Why do companies invest in making the invisible work visible? Because it facilitates execution of strategy, supports alliances, improves the quality of decisions made, promotes innovation, assists integration after a merger, and nurtures communities of practice.

Think of the dark side as well. Some organizations discover business units are not talking with one another. Employees working out of their homes may not feel like employees at all. New hires who are not consciously oriented take much longer to come up to speed. Information hoarders reny others the opportunity to benefit from what they know. Bottlenecks hinder the progress of entire departments. The departure of a single individual may have the potential to break vital relationships within the organization and with customers as well.

What's a manager to do? First of all, contemplate where your invisibile empire's network may be in danger of breaking down. If you're in a smaller organization, you can probably feel the heat of the friction already. For larger groups, where the potential payoff is larger, surveying workers, 360º analyses, and automated email analysis tools can map social networks, highlighting potential trouble spots.

Search natural faultlines for dislocations in the social network. Check for broken communication links among natural divides: new recruit/veteran, male/female, young/old, low status/high.

Physical distance may seem trivial, especially when people work in the same office. A study of interactions among scientists at seven different laboratories found the liklihood of communicating began to decay noticiably when two people were more than three feet apart. Place them thirty-three feet apart, and interaction is squeezed to a trickle. (Stewart, 2002, p. 205) Now I understand why my staff seemed so distant years ago when I had a snazzy office 20' from their workspaces.

Then what? If two groups are not connecting, bring them together and have them work on joint projects. Don't simply put them in a room together: we are all inclined to hang out with our friends.

Face-to-face meetings are great for kicking off a relationship. After trust is established in person, a relationship can coast on electronic contact for quite some time. The latest theory I've read on why meeting on line is never as powerful as meeting in face-to-face involves micro-movements of the eyes.

Every organization has people who leave you feeling inspired. Their enthusiasm boosts your energy level. Unfortunately, the enthusiasts are usually counter-balanced by toxic workers, folks who sap your strength.

Are you an energizer or a de-energizer? When Cross and Parker posed this question, they were surprised to find that most people hadn't thought systematically about their impact on their colleagues. Energizers think about both task and relationship, but de-energizers are all task-driven. A word to the wise: relationships fuel business. To prosper, pay attention to how you relate to others and don't make the mistake of thinking that getting the task accomplished makes it okay to ignore other people.


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