I propose the continuous monitoring of different informal intra-team networks and the usage of the collected data as a constant input for management decisions. By being aware of the state of different networks leaders can easily build teams with rich internal connections and thus greater flexibility and effectiveness.
The basic nature of teams, the fact that they are made up of people who are directed not by just rational considerations (e.g. being efficient), but by not-always rational considerations as well (e.g. I like working with some of my colleagues and not so keen to work with some of the others…), and the presence of informal dynamics, by itself results in a number of interesting issues and phenomena. I would not immediately label any of these dynamics or issues as problems, as these – because of their human nature – are ‘normal’ and ‘OK’, however their presence might reduce the effectiveness of work.
From the number of interesting, however effectiveness-reducing issues, this hack is designed to deal with the following:
Limited effectiveness of communication and knowledge sharing in teams. The most effective routes of information and knowledge sharing within a group are the informal relationships, networks. As the information flow (which includes both office gossip and work-related knowledge requests as well) is organized mostly around the informal networks of a group or organization, it is crucial to have balanced networks within groups and organizations. If the internal network is fragmented – e.g. there are people who are not ‘linked in’ properly – then there are people whose knowledge, capacity is either not visible or/and it is not used by the team. They are not asked to participate, they are not asked to provide help as often as others. Such unbalanced networks then cause a disproportionate spread of workload (as socially favoured, however not always highly competent people are involved in tasks more often), reduced team flexibility (as information is slower to travel in fragmented networks, and existing capabilities are not as visible to all members as they should be) and even disengagement.
I do think that having teams and organizations with rich internal connections, and balanced internal networks makes those teams and organizations more flexible, and a more useful “resource” for the organizations they are a part of, and a more fun entity to be a part of.
IN A NUTSHELL:
Use the email (and other) traffic data to get to know current organizational networks. Consciously link unconnected team members on ‘second priority’ tasks to foster the creation of links within the team. Enjoy the presence of a strong network at a later assignment J
IN A BIT MORE DETAIL
I propose to continuously analyze the team/organizational social networks that are alive in the given formation and then using this data to steer the team to create more internal connections.
HOW TO ANALYZE THE NETWORKS?
This can be done by analyzing electronic communication (e-mail, telephone, instant messaging) traffic between the members of the organization.
The more systems can be involved the better is the result, however even only e-mail communication can be a good indicator of the currently existing networks.
There is no need to analyze the detailed content of the messages, only the following aspects:
- who is communicating with whom? (mutuality is important)
- what is the frequency of communication between members?
- what is the main content type? (e.g.: personal message, professional help request, professional help offering, company-related events discussion, other)
The first two aspects are usually automatically logged in the electronic communication systems used these days. Data on the third aspect could be gathered by asking all team/organizational members to “tag” their messages. E.g. put the tag of “Personal” on personal emails in the subject field, or in instant messages. In the case of the internal phone calls – where electronic phone systems are used – an extra code could be created, which could be given after dialling the given extension.
The data can be collected continuously by simple logging activities, and it can be analyzed periodically, for example bi-weekly to create organizational network diagrams showing who is communicating with whom, who is working with whom, who are the ones who share personal interests and so on. Programs that do the analysis are even now available for purchase.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE NETWORK DATA?
If people have to interact, if they have to act or work together, then relationships are formed. The network diagrams show the current informal structures of the team/organization to the leader. All he/she has to do is to assign people who are not connected to joint tasks.
The leaders should use the network positions as an additional input – just like competency matrices or other tools – for creating project teams or for assigning task.
On the short term – as these people are not connected – these tasks would not be an easy task to do, however the joint work and the opportunity to get to know each other should create relationships that will help the team at a later time.
Logically these tasks should not be “top priority” jobs, just “important enough to be taken seriously”.
- As not-connected members would be required to interact then we can assume that relationships, connections would be formed. People can get to know others both personally and professionally, and thus the direct awareness of the professional contribution the others can make increases.
- If this awareness is present then communication would become more direct. If I know who has the capacity to support me, and if I have a good experience with that person, then I’ll turn directly to him/her for information, support etc.
- Enabling the continuous development of the internal network can lead to a well interconnected team, where members really know what goes on with the others, and how can they work effectively together.
For a quick & dirty experiment e-mail logs should be analyzed with a simple organizational network analysis software. (Getting the data out is the tricky part, however system administrators should have the knowledge how to do so, and analytical software is available too.) For the Q&D experiment we can forget the tags, we can just concentrate on the communication flow within the organization.
Based on the network maps leaders should create a few (2-4) ‘linking’ assignments, that could be done in a few days. Then re-test the networks, and only include data from the time which follows the closing of the ‘linking’ assignments.
Re-testing the networks, and the overall effect can be done simply by asking and looking around.
Analyze changes in the networks and keep doing J Step by step additional elements of the idea – tags, other means of electronic communication – can be introduced.