Harnessing Informal Networks

Another Harvard Business Review article in the March 2010 issue is worth highlighting.  A piece by Richard McDermott and Douglas Archibald examines informal and formal networks in companies, such as Fluor and ConocoPhillips, but their insights are relevant to public agencies as well.  And they may be helpful to the Obama Administration’s efforts to create its proposed set of “problem solving networks.”

Background.  “Independent, off-the-grid communities have proliferated in recent years, and many companies have counted on them to deliver creative solutions to challenges that bridge functional gaps,” note McDermott and Archibald.  It was believed that “Too much attend from management . . .would crush the group’s collaborative nature.”  But in fact, these bottom-up communities of practice have been dying in many companies.  In part, this was because new technologies made the information-sharing that went on in these forums far more pervasive and “The community started to feel less intimate, and its members, less obligated to their peers.”  As a result, communities often dissolved.

However, the authors found in their research that communities of practice aren’t dead, but they differ significantly from their earlier predecessors: “Today, they’re an actively managed part of the organization, with specific goals, explicit accountability, and clear executive oversight.”

Strategically Creating Communities.  McDermott and Archibald identified four principles that govern the design and integration of effective communities that are sponsored by their home organizations:

  • Focus on issues important to the organization.  For example, the UN country team in India created a set of 12 communities in a “Solution Exchange”, comprised of people from government and non-governmental agencies.  It cuts across institutional barriers and allows people to connect regardless of where they are. 
  • Establish community goals and deliverables.  “Explicit goals make communities operate more like teams on a day-to-day level, but community goals differ from team goals in that they’re tied to long-term needs,” note the authors.
  • Provide real governance.  Companies often appoint a senior manager to sponsor each community.
  • Set high management expectations.  “Senior managers’ sponsorship is useless if they’re not genuinely engaged with the communities.”  Oftentimes, community participation drops when new leaders are less engaged than the original sponsors.

Maximizing a Community’s Impact.  According to McDermott and Archibald, organizations can increase the operational effectiveness of communities by:

  • Setting aside time for employees to participate in communities
  • Training community leaders for their roles
  • Holding face-to-face events
  • Using simple IT tools

How do communities differ from teams?  Communities tend to be around for the long-term, being the keepers of knowledge or professional discipline.  Teams, on the other hand, focus on specific deliverables.  Community leaders do not have authority over their members, and communities tend to be more inclusive than exclusive.  Teams, on the other hand, tend to be focused on solving a specific problem and then disband.

The Obama Administration plans to expand the use of existing problem solving networks.  Do you know of existing networks that it should be included in its effort?


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