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Using social networks to manage organizations

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The information in this article is current as of July 6, 2002.

Whenever we design an information system for an organization, we have to acknowledge that people are irrational, and that information never flows rationally through organizations. Technology initiatives often fail because their designers don't take into account how people actually learn, and who they are willing to learn from.

For example, in our study of settlement agencies in Ontario, many agencies told us that formal off-site training sessions were ineffective in learning new technologies. In contrast, small-group or one-to-one sessions that helped learners figure out how to use computers in their own offices, doing their day to day activities, were extremely effective. This is just one demonstration of a well known tenet of adult education; that learning is most effective when it is in the context of actual use.

But most workplace learning takes place outside formal training sessions. People learn through a variety of channels, including reading, going to conferences, trying out new skills on their own, and communicating with their colleagues. My previous article on knowledge management and social network analysis described how information flows through a network, and how social networks are critical in understanding how to manage knowledge.

Social networks are also key to understanding how to change and manage organizations. Two recent articles in the Harvard Business Review (June 2002) and the MIT Sloan Journal of Management (Spring 2002) summarize new research on the importance of informal networks in the way that work is accomplished. This research suggests that formal reporting relationships are only a small part of actual management, and that informal networks influence organizations through the relationships of people in four core roles. If managers acknowledge and understand who plays these roles, they can improve performance and also introduce change more effectively.

The whole area of social network analysis is growing rapidly, because it explains and describes so much of organizational life. In this article, I'll just describe the four key roles according to these two articles, as well as some of the myths of social networks.

The roles are central connectors (sometimes called hubs), boundary spanners, information brokers and peripheral specialists. Central connectors are people who seem to know everyone; they link individuals together in a network by knowing who can do what, and who knows what. They are the people you call most often for help, and if they can't help they know who can. They tend to spend large amounts of time helping colleagues with information (at least an hour a day), and if their role is not understood they may be undervalued in the organization.

Boundary spanners connect informal networks with external groups, for example other agencies, or sectors, or regions. Through their relationships with the outside, boundary spanners provide a quick efficient conduit of relevant information. They are especially important when agencies need to frequently tap into specialized skills, such as technical expertise or research knowledge. Sometimes long-term consultants can play this role in an organization. Organizations need to ensure that their boundary spanners are connecting to the right people inside the organization, so that relevant external information flows quickly to the network. For example, boundary spanners should connect to central connectors rather than people on the periphery of the network.

Information brokers connect several subnetworks within the organization, as opposed to boundary spanners who connect to outside networks. Information brokers are essential because they prevent the many groups within any large organization from falling apart into separate silos. They have many indirect connections throughout the organization.

Finally, peripheral specialists act as outsiders in the network, and are pulled in for specific advice or tasks. They are not tightly integrated into the group. They may not spend a lot of time communicating with others, and don't show up at staff meetings, but they may be investing their time in maintaining the necessary skills. For example, a visiting medical specialist may have a peripheral but very important involvement in a child care agency.

Organizations that want to introduce change will have a great deal of difficulty unless they work through informal networks and the webs of trust and communication that are already established. Tools like formal social network analysis can help to identify these relationships, and identify the real informal leaders in the organization.

Gillian Kerr, Ph.D., C.Psych. - President, RealWorld Systems

gkerr at realworldsystems.net

Read my weblog at http://blog.realworldsystems.net

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