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How to use informal employee relationships for communication?

Organizational Network Analysis

It is quite easy to spot people endowed with the special power to influence interpersonal relationships, even if they do not hold key positions in a company. They are commonly charismatic and well-informed, and their opinions count. Every organization has an alternative network of interpersonal relationships headed by such informal leaders. Can organizations use such networks for their benefit?

The way informal leaders influence the functioning of businesses has become a subject of interest to the creators of the Organizational Network Analysis (ONA). ONA views organizations as a hierarchy of relationships, contacts and influences that exist parallel to official structures. If properly identified and managed, they can benefit both management and rank-and-file employees. Rather than pretending that only official positions and chains of command are of importance, organizations could benefit from keeping track of such informal, and yet quite real, structures, as they emerge. This approach can generate significant benefits and be of particular interest to HR and communication professionals. If adopted properly, it will enable organizations to both detect bottlenecks in their management and create new relationships that will further the company’s interests.

While the observation itself that the really important things in the functioning of human teams take place somewhat outside of the official organization chart may not be very revealing, harnessing this knowledge for the benefit of the company is not a trivial matter. Although ONA is a brand new model, the media dealing with communications and consulting have been showing much interest in the concept.

Protagonists of the hidden order

Let us examine more closely the presumption that every business organization crystallizes into a structure that does not mirror its official hierarchy. Are there clear principles and mechanisms that shape such structures? The authors of “Organizational network analysis. Gain insight, smart drive“ argue that such mechanisms can be easily distinguished.

Let us begin with informal leaders. They are at the core of every organization, they are the individuals whose opinions should be respected. We view them as the go-to people whom we instinctively approach for advice and guidance regarding our work. They are typically sources of positive, creative energy in the company. They are known to operate “across” and even contrary to established lines of command. They can both strengthen the existing order and create a critical ferment, which even the management are compelled to acknowledge. Informal leaders influence information flows and employee reactions, affecting management decisions. These are central, nodes, as the article’s authors call them, with which corporate relationship network ties are connected. This makes them the hubs at which key processes and corporate communications are focused.

Another group that significantly affects alternative relationship networks are knowledge brokers. They play the roles of intermediaries between various groups within the company. As liaisons, they create new connections and communication paths between departments, divisions, individuals and teams. Without their involvement, it would be very difficult to ensure information flows, promote ideas and solidify values ​​within the company. These people are also crucial for informal leaders, who use their communication skills.

There is also a third group of persons who affect informal relations that should be distinguished. Their existence can be critical to information flows, people’s behaviors and the adoption of common organizational values. They remain in the peripheries of informal connection networks, seemingly insignificant in the overall model. They are competent experts and professionals, who are reluctant to share their expertise with others. They passively remain in the background, refusing to engage with the corporate structure, sometimes even contesting it. As specialists, they are extremely valuable, sometimes “irreplaceable” owing to the professional competencies they are contributing. Yet, as communication partners, they are as difficult as they are demanding. While leaders bring others together, and brokers facilitate communications, the peripheral people, through their withdrawal and reluctance to identify with the rest of the team, can even cause crises. Aware of their competencies and market value, they easily “migrate away” to another employer. Their choice to leave has the potential to disrupt significant projects.

The above roles are all interlinked. They manifest themselves through interpersonal relationships, the flow of knowledge, commitments, and even common likes or dislikes. An analysis of such ties can help one see the actual structure of a company, the network of true internal connections.

Revolutionary visualization

This brings us to the key question: how does one harness the knowledge of an informal network of corporate connections? How can the awareness of a company’s “alternative order” help us manage the organization? The proponents of ONA assume that the key to using the concept is to visualize the connections. This will help one “see” the real relationships between formal leaders, the nodes, the knowledge brokers, the people withdrawn into network peripheries and other employees. A visualized network will also precisely identify the people who play all these roles. Once virtual maps are created, you can trace critical connections between individual members of the organization and identify deficits in the flow of knowledge and communication. What is more, you can eliminate unnecessary or potentially harmful relationships. The awareness of how informal relationships are formed in your company can help you remove unseen barriers in communication, make decisions and manage knowledge. It can also help engage the right people, whose participation is not always obvious, in particular processes. This will significantly improve key processes across the company, not only communications. One of the applications of such maps is to note the competencies of individuals and, on that basis, manage e.g. recruitment and succession more efficiently.

Performance diagrams

One should never expect an employee relationship map to be created “by hand”. There is software available that performs the necessary analyses and visualizations. Experts contemplating to use the method are advised to look up Polinode and similar applications. Another notable tool is the Polish-made maporganisation.pl. Applications relying on algorithms analyze key processes that affect the development of an “alternative” order in an organization. They rely on employee surveys with questions about their relationships with others. The analysis may also include e-mail contacts between colleagues, intranet entries and comments, and reactions to e-mails.

Such tools will help us reach previously inaccessible information and show differences and disproportions between official and unofficial hierarchies. Applications that analyze communications can also show that certain projects will never fly as the organization lacks either effective knowledge or information brokers. In extreme cases, ONA analyses will show that the existing model of relationships between supervisors and employees is ineffective. Such tools may offer valuable insights and, in time, help redesign the company relationship model.

Corporations are testing

Will the above methods and tools become commonplace? I certainly think so. Modern organizational leadership programs have long been attempting to redefine key relationships in companies. Many corporations today have shown they can move away from their traditional hierarchies and adopt flexible structures. With its focus on authentic processes, ONA can satisfy many HR specialists and company leaders. In fact, the trend has already grown strong. Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trendsreport presents findings of a managerial staff survey covering over 10,000 leaders from 140 countries. An astounding 48 percent of respondents admitted they had already explored the notion of ONA. The concept is well-known to the likes of General Motors, Cisco Systems and Signal Health Insurance, which use the new methods to increase productivity and select leaders.internal

The above concepts can pose a serious challenge for all: management boards, formal leaders and communication experts. They all need to consent to showing actual relationships and identifying informal leaders within the organization. And this, undoubtedly, will also be an act of courage.

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