The assumption underlying knowledge management efforts is that untapped power lies within an organization and needs only to be brought forth. But what if KM software, communities of practice and offsite team-building exercises are actually part of the problem? A forthcoming book on companies' social networks points out that collaboration has a cost, in the form of ever-more meetings and e-mails that serve to bog down employees rather than unleash them.
Instead of indiscriminately pursuing greater communication, managers would do well to figure out how to optimize the flow of information among their employees, say researchers Rob Cross and Andrew Parker in The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations (Harvard Business School Press, June 2004).
When Cross and Parker, who are both affiliated with IBM Corp.'s Knowledge and Organizational Performance Forum, studied the social networks at more than 60 organizations, they saw certain patterns of interaction. Four types of employees are particularly important in social networks.
- Central connectors are the few people in every group whom everybody turns to. They are the decision-makers, the experts. However, when the demands of the job grow bigger than a central connector can handle, this person may inadvertently slow down others by not responding quickly enough.
- Boundary spanners are people who link two or more groups of employees who are separated by location, hierarchy or function (for instance, IT and marketing). This role is important when different expertise needs to be shared--for instance, when coordinating the design, manufacture and marketing of a new product.
- Information brokers serve as conduits. Remove them and communication inside the group is greatly diminished.
- Peripheral people are the outsiders. Sometimes these people are underutilized and sometimes their professional or social skills are lacking. Occasionally, though, they are peripheral by design, as in the case of research scientists whose time is best spent in the lab.
Cross and Parker offer managers suggestions for improving their organizations' social networks--for instance, identifying the boundary spanners and assigning them to projects that would benefit from cross-group collaboration. Social network analysis is a tool for helping your organization get out of its own way.