Improve Collaboration Through Network Analysis

Richard Beckhard was a pioneer in the field of organizational development and published Organization Development: Strategies and Models in 1969. He was an adjunct professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management for 21 years before passing away in 1999.  The Richard Beckhard Memorial Prize is awarded each year to the author or authors of an MIT Sloan Management Review article within the field of change and organizational development. The article selected for the 2012 prize was The Collaborative Organization: How to Make Employee Networks Really Work by Rob Cross, Peter Gray, Shirley Cunningham, Mark Showers and Robert J. Thomas. Following are highlights of the winning work.

The MIT authors conducted research to answer the question: “How can companies build more collaborative and innovative organizations?”, with a specific focus on IT departments. As Information Technology departments are increasingly expected to focus on strategy initiatives, CIOs are called upon to use innovative technologies to separate their organization from the competition. The authors’ research showed that more efficient and innovative IT organizations can be developed by not only implementing common managerial best practices and formal accountability relationships, but also by identifying, analyzing and improving formal and informal employee networks.

The authors point out that: “Within IT organizations in large global companies, we have seen that innovative solutions often emerge unexpectedly through informal and unplanned interactions between individuals who see problems from different perspectives. What’s more, successful execution frequently flows from the networks of relationships that help employees handle situations that don’t fit cleanly into established processes and structures.” The authors attest that driving operational excellence within an organization requires the effective analysis and innovative use of formal and informal employee networks.

The research supports that although individual employees may be aware of informal networks, these relationships are not usually apparent to managers. Network analysis allows management to become aware of informal networks between individuals, teams, and company locations, and then further develop those networks that are fostering effectiveness and align them with strategic company goals. Themes may become apparent regarding decision-making, collaboration and brainstorming. Also, relationship network issues which need to be corrected may be identified.

Understanding employee networks can be used to improve performance in four areas:

1. Benefits of Scale through Effective Collaboration across Geographies

Understanding where IT networks are isolated can open up opportunities to collaborate across multiple locations. Redundant expertise, investments and initiatives can be avoided. Adding new communication and networks can help eliminate redundancy. One caveat the authors point out is that additional communication does not necessarily result in collaboration. Structure communication channels carefully without adding unnecessary work.

2. Develop Engagement and Performance

Analyzing networks of top-performing employees can help to develop a more effective workforce. The authors point out that “top-performing IT employees had strikingly different networks from their colleagues, which gave them access to the best expertise available, not just what was physically nearby.” The most effective employees benefited from networks with a broad range of expertise, location and function.

3. Align Collaboration with Business Partners and Stakeholders

Analyzing networks shared with external business partners and other stakeholders can reveal how often ideas from outside the organization are being considered. In order for external concepts and innovation to flow into the company, an employee needs to have strong external ties to acquire new concepts, as well as strong internal ties to sell a new concept internally and push it into implementation. Identifying employees with strong external ties, but minimal internal influence, may help to identify personnel with untapped innovative ideas.

4. Minimize Network Inefficiencies and Costs

The nature of IT projects requires an evaluation of how one project will affect all other related applications, company infrastructure and processes. As a result, network collaboration can become counterproductive if there are too many people involved in project decision points. Process efficiency can sometimes be improved if network connectivity is reduced.

Network analysis provides the basis for analyzing congested collaboration points. If inefficiencies are determined to be caused by requirements from a certain individual, then data can be redistributed or the organizational structure can be changed to modify decision points. Inefficiencies caused by required technical expertise can be addressed by identifying specific skills or knowledge needed and training groups of individuals.

Using network analysis can help to improve performance and collaboration in any type of organization. Check online for a variety of employee network analysis resources and tools to get started.

To read the article in its entirety, visit http://sloanreview.mit.edu/the-magazine/2010-fall/52121/the-collaborative-organization-how-to-make-employee-networks-really-work/.

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