The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations, by Rob Cross and Andrew Parker, illuminates far more than I expected about the different types of social networks that exist within and across organizations, and the way those networks impact, and are impacted by, the organizations in and through which they flow. In addition to "the usual suspects" -- the people in an organization, the information they use for problem-solving and learning, and the way that information flows (or doesn't flow) among them -- the authors shine the light of social network analysis onto the flow of awareness, energy and trust, and highlight the importance of creating time and space for serendipity. The book is filled with interesting case studies, and a collection of charts and graphs, the latter of which typically depict people or groups in an organization as nodes in a network, and the information -- or other types of currency -- that passes among them as links in the network.
In an awareness network, the links represent what people know -- and value -- about other people in the network. When people are unaware of the knowledge (and other qualities) possessed by their colleagues, teams are likely to miss opportunities and fall short of the full potential of achieving high performance. The authors suggest ways of increasing awareness such as skill profiling systems and staffing practices in which teams are composed of people who don't already know each other very well. However, they also note that it is "serendipitous interactions that often reveal people's expertise".
The links in an energy network represent who energizes whom. Simply sharing knowledge is often not sufficient for successful projects and teams: what really matters is whether someone can motivate a group to put ideas into action. Energetic people tend to be high performers, and they attract and energize other people, who in turn tend to be more energetic and higher performers, creating a positive reinforcement network in building momentum for an endeavor. [This illustrates another dimension of the positive contagion effect I recently blogged about in a post on unfolding radiance, which was prompted by a post by Dan Oestreich and a mutually inspiring quote from Marianne Williamson in which she notes that "as we let our light shine, we subconsciously give other people permission to do the same" ... a blogospheric sequence which is, itself, an illustration of positive contagion].
Not everyone is generating and attracting positive energy; there are also energy sappers who exhibit "an uncanny ability to drain the life out of a group". The authors note that such people also generate impact that extends beyond specific interactions, as others in their network spend time preparing for (dreading) such interactions, and time afterward processing (venting) ... and they may be more likely to drain energy from others in their subsequent interactions, creating a negative reinforcement negative effect [Kathy Sierra recently wrote quite a bit more extensively on the emotional contagion effects of angry/negative people, with lots of insights and references].
The importance of knowledge work, and thus knowledge management (and wisdom management) has received a great deal of attention in business and academic circles. The notion of energy work has traditionally been the purview of non-traditional (i.e., non-Western) or New Age theories and practices. Energy can be measured in the physical domain (E=mc2), but is much more elusive in the psychological, emotional and spiritual domains. The authors use a self-reporting mechanism to analyze the energy in the social networks they examined, asking each survey participant "When you interact with this person, how does it typically affect your energy level?" using a 5-point scale where 1=strongly de-energizing and 5=strongly energizing. Although there are reliability issues in self-reporting (which may affect all of the dimensions of analysis presented in this book), I don't think anyone would deny that the flow of positive and negative energy in a social network are key factors in the strength and capabilities of that network. Thus, energy management -- of self and others -- is an important component of effective leadership.
The flow of trust is another important component in social networks. Trust is founded on integrity, openness, vulnerability and compassion, and provides an essential foundation for the flow of information and energy in a network. If I don't trust someone, I am less likely to ask a question that might expose my ignorance, or seek other forms of support from that person ... and am less likely to ask questions or seek support from others when that person is around. In fact, I'm less likely to take any kind of risk in a low-trust environment, and thus less willing to experiment or innovate.
While trust is crucial to sharing information and collaboration in the workplace, the authors found that
If anything surprised us from our interviews, it was the importance of relationships developing on a personal front to become effective professionally (in terms of information sharing and collaboration). Almost universally, people reported that their most valued information relationships had connected on issues outside work, and this process was often identified as a major milestone in the development of the relationship.
Therefore, they go on to propose that organizations can foster stronger social networks by "creating opportunities for people to connect on non-work-related matters". Specifically, they outline a persona book that includes a photo, contact information, professional background, but also hobbies, educational background and answers to "idiosyncratic questions". This information can be made available online or offline (e.g., baseball cards), and their followup assessments indicate that the availability of this non-work-related information was important in deepening relationships.
The value of serendipity is highlighted in several places throughout the book. I counted nine references to the term serendipity, and numerous other references to the concept, e.g.,
- a reduction in serendipitous hallway meetings, due to a physical move of part of a team, resulted in a series of operational problems in one organization they studied (p. 7)
- in another organization, "except for channels formed early in a few meetings, additional relationships developed only by serendipity" (p. 29)
- "people often described to us five-minute hallway conversations that had significant impact" (p. 64)
Not surprisingly, I have an idea for serendipitously providing access to non-work-related (personal) information in a workplace context that can help build and strengthen social networks in an organization: proactive displays. Large displays located near employee entrances could show content from people's online profiles as they enter or exit each day. At Accenture, our office park had turnstyles with badge readers for employees to "badge in" and "badge out"; monitors in the security guards' desks displayed the person's name and photo, to help ensure that the employee badges matched the employees. What if the photo, name and other information was shown on a shared display, so that everyone could learn more about the nameless faces and faceless names around them.
I remember having a "nodding acquaintance" with a number of fellow employees who seemed to be on similar schedules; I sometimes knew what kind of car they drove, but little else. Who knows how many collaboration or knowledge sharing opportunities we all missed, but if we were each presented with tickets to talk on a large display as we came and left, e.g., a photo from my daughter's last softball game, a photo from someone else's family ski trip, another person's new dog, we'd have daily opportunities for expanding and strengthening our social networks in the workplace. Our cafeteria had a point-of-sale terminal system that enabled us to pay for our food with our employee badges ... another opportunity for deploying a proactive display that can show content relating to people nearby, in order to promote awareness and interactions. The Human Resources department could also add a content stream to such displays, using them to acknowledge accomplishments and milestones achieved by the employees, providing new congratulatory opportunities among co-workers.
In case it's not obvious, one of the reasons I was so excited about this book is that I see proactive displays as serendipitous connection facilitators, promoting the flow of awareness, energy and trust among those sharing a physical space by taking advantage of existing online content, identification technologies and human practices ... bridging the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between people's online and offline representations of themselves ... and thereby unleashing some of the hidden power of social networks.