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Rob Cross

Rob Cross

26th Jun 2017

Rob Cross, PhD is a professor of commerce at University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce

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The Nature of Networks Within Organisations

‘Network’ is a word which has become a staple of our daily vocabulary. Whether we’re talking about the evolution of online social networks or the importance of effective networking to our careers and improving business practices, the word itself takes on various nuances of meaning and sometimes we forget the true importance of a well-functioning network.

Recently I had the great honour of speaking at the Irish Management institute (IMI) Talent Forum, where I talked about the nature of networks within organisations. Together with Annie McCallum, (Head of Executive Development, Careers at Associated British Foods) we spoke about how successful organisations leverage their employee networks for enhanced performance.

Teamwork and cloud computing concepts (Photo source)

Managing talent is a major issue facing businesses across the globe, but it’s crucial to bear in mind that without a working organisational structure, talent will not be utilised or nurtured properly, leading to frustration and negativity among the workforce.

I’m a firm believer that network structures within organisations are much more beneficial than the traditional hierarchal structure. By implementing a network structure, which pairs various elements of the management team with staff in many other roles, connectivity between high performers can be managed more effectively.

Factors Causing Silos

As part of our talk at the IMI, we had a very productive table discussion where participants thought about the factors which cause the development of silos and too much hierarchy in organisations. Some of the interesting reasons given were: a lack of common purpose, different compensation structures, hierarchy preventing collaboration, and unconscious bias – gravitating towards people who are like us.

These issues are common in most organisations, and there are various ways to overcome them but some of the most effective solutions can be derived from the network structure. When an organisation is set up in this way, individuals can use their network in a more targeted fashion; reaching into their network when overwhelmed or facing a big challenge.

Organisations and Networks

At an organisational level, changing our approach to staffing projects can help reconfigure the network.  Choosing the same people, who are generally ‘nodes’ of communication, perpetuates the same people turning up, causing them to be overwhelmed.  Picking differently from the middle tier and implementing rotation programmes can be a helpful approach.

As part of our workshop, Annie and I used case studies to show what successful organisations do differently when it comes to employee networks.

Over time we have found that organisations who do better tend to manage the centre better, meaning they know when someone is overloaded.

Effective organisations know how to manage the fringe and they understand how to draw people in who might be isolated due to structural or practical considerations.

They bridge silos by integrating networks at the points which will make a difference and add value.

By acting proactively, these organisations encourage people to connect and respond without going through the leader.

Achieving Change in your Network

When looking at your organisation, it’s important to remember that “bigger is not better” when it comes to networks at a personal or organisational level.  It is much more nuanced and has been proven that a more targeted approach to developing networks can have a greater impact on organisational and individual performance.

Like all good business practices, building an effective network takes time but there are certain things we can focus on in our own working lives to facilitate this success. In the workshop, we realised that there are some key traits to people who form effective networks. These are people who do things to decrease collaborative overload; they build non-insular networks and, crucially, they are energisers.

Most of us have to work hard at developing these skills, but the first step is simply realising the strength of the potential network around us, and finding out how we can contribute to make it stronger.

Rob Cross, PhD is a professor of commerce at University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce. His research focuses on how relationships and informal networks in organisations can provide competitive advantage in knowledge-intensive work.

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