In Turning Informal Networks into Formal Ones Craig Roth talks about the latest in a McKinsey Quarterly "series" on collaboration, Harnessing the power of informal employee networks by McKinsey consultants Lowell Bryan, Eric Matson, and Leigh Weiss.
Formal network structures can mobilize employees to generate value by propagating knowledge and its creators all over the enterprise. Rather than pushing knowledge and talent through a hierarchical matrix, formal networks let employees pull these necessities toward them.
Craig takes the authors to task for focusing too heavily on the idea of formal networks to the exclusion of all other forms.
But I’m not as thrilled about the next in the series [of articles]. The new article is about formal networks, but is called “Harnessing the power of informal employee networks”. The change in nomenclature comes about because the authors’ answer to how to harness the power of informal networks is to make them formal.
And there will still be informal networks. As Craig asks, how and when do you decide to make the shift from informal to formal?
As I read the article, I had all the terms for networks running through my head: organization chart, matrixed organizations, communities of practice / interest, centers of excellence, the lunchroom gang, golf league, the smokers, book club, ... In all of these, knowledge and information move around the network. And they all play a different role in terms of value (and recognition) to the organization.
It might be interesting to see a discussion of all the forms of networks we see in organizations and how they are helpful (or harmful in some cases). For example, hierarchies are valuable when the informal structures don't exist or when they become inoperative. In the reverse sense, informal networks are helpful in getting day-to-day work done so that people don't have to route up and down the formal power structure to get work done across departments and divisions. The formalized networks tend to be a solidification of these informal networks and likely have advantages and disadvantages of both. Then there are those networks that form to vendors, customers, clients and other people outside of the official boundaries of the company. They operate in much the same way with the official relationships being only one of many sources of knowledge transfer.