Using Social Networks to Tap into Hidden Organizational Influence

I have previously posted information on how social network analysis (“SNA”) is being used to assist companies in getting a better picture of how their organizational structures actually work.  Companies can use SNA to tap into underutilized human resources that have accumulated social capital and influence within the informal organizational structure even though they do not have lofty titles and formal spheres of influence on the company’s formal organizational chart.  For example, a company that has been having trouble changing its culture to embrace more entrepreneurial and innovative values may supplement formal training with a search for low- and mid-level managers who have demonstrated the traits and talents the company is most anxious to instill throughout its workforce—passion, commitment, tolerance for calculated risk-taking, competitiveness, solution orientation, and an ability to inspire colleagues and build trust.  Experts in SNA might work with the company’s human resources department to develop surveys, canvass existing information such as performance reviews, and interview executives and other senior managers to identify a small group of managers at lower levels of the formal company organization that appear to have the desired traits and talents.  The members of that group would go through extensive interviews and asked to provide the names of others within the company that they believe share most or all of the characteristics that the company is seeking.  The immediate result of this process should be identification of a core group of talented managers and other employees who had earned the respect of their peers and are well positioned to exert tremendous influence over their colleagues to drive them to take the company in a different direction provided the group can be convinced to buy into new goals and objectives established for the company.

The first step for mobilizing the leaders of the informal organizational network should be a focused meeting with the CEO and other members of the senior management group to discuss possible company goals and objectives and the strategies that might be used to achieve them.  The CEO should not dictate and instead should be prepared to listen very carefully to the feedback that is provided by everyone in attendance.  Proper respect should be shown for the social capital that has been accumulated by the key persons within the informal organizational network and the CEO must realize that they cannot be expected to fritter away that capital on ideas and directions that are not consistent with their own values and interests.  The CEO and other senior managers should also be prepared to abandon micro-management of strategy and tactics and avoid constraining the informal network by changing the formal organizational structure in a way that will lead to conflicts as new projects are launched.  Once these leaders of the informal organizational network understand what is being asked for by the CEO and the other senior managers they should be empowered to “organize” on their own and provided with the resources that are reasonably necessary to influence and educate other employees.  For example, they may hold meetings and conferences to share information and discuss particular topics and brainstorm about new ways to do certain operational activities.  In addition, plans should be made for monitoring the impact of supporting the leaders of the informal organizational network, such as by conducting surveys of employee and customer satisfaction.  Finally, an effort should be made to continue identifying additional candidates for leadership in the informal network.  Ironically, if the process is successful the informal organizational network will itself become more institutionalized and companies may set aside resources, such as administrative staff, to support its activities.  However, companies need to be careful about the size and formality of their encouraged social network activities since a network that grows too large may lose its effectiveness.

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