How Networks Can Revolutionise the World

The world is one big network problem. Some even affirm that we can only survive the future through connections. One thing is sure, Network theory is becoming more and more profoundly important to understand the world. 

In a compelling RSA talk, the economist and author Paul Ormerod makes the case of how “we have to see the world through the lense of networks in order to be able to design and think about better policies to achieving our ends whether in politics or the corporate sphere”. Through examples of network systems that range from popular culture to modern economy, Ormerod presents how observing network properties such as resilience or fragility can help explain some aspects of today’s world, including the economic crisis.   

 

 

Power of networked teams

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Photo courtesy of ‘PixelPlacebo’
How can you divide the labor in your organization to optimize for innovation rather than efficiency? ~Dave Gray 

Networked workers are a critical asset for today’s organizations. But in the end of the day, it does little good to be a networked worker if the organizational context will simply drive you back to ineffective patterns. In order for an organization to benefit of the power of its networked workers, it needs to instill a culture that scales the social and intellectual capital of its employees to a level that meets organization’s purposes. And that’s where networked teams come into play. 

What is a networked team?
A networked team is a social entity that carries out tasks in order to serve the needs of a customer (internal or external) and is embedded in one or several larger social systems . It stands out from regular teams by its network awareness, which mainly manifests itself in the following characteristics:

 

Cohesive construct: A networked team is a cohesive social network. It is not too tight that homophily takes stage nor too loose that it becomes difficult to diffuse knowledge and  new innovations. A networked team can have a core subgroup that instills the team’s culture and insures a good environment for nourishing peripheral members with the needed knowledge. If many subgroups emerge within the team, they need to be interconnected to keep the knowledge flow going.

 

Connected unit: A networked team is anything but siloed. It doesn’t evolve in an independent realm but rather bridges the gaps among itself and other teams effectively. It recognizes its weavers and leverages their access in order to reach out to novel ideas and processes.

 

Just the right amount of power : While a certain degree of leadership is necessary for stimulating innovation, the power within networked teams is decentralized to some extent. Team members are actually empowered enough to function as a business within the business.

 

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Why networked teams are winner teams?
Networked teams grant the organization a fluid structuring based on relentlessly changing templates, quick improvisation and ad hoc responses. This can easily be translated into competitive advantage as it allows for innovation through continuous creation of new (combination of) resources.

Networked teams are network-aware, which means they manage their social and intellectual capital better, they know how to retain and access talent across the organization (thanks to their bridges) and their inherent structuring allows them optimal knowledge diffusion (Fully connected with more or less decentralized power).
Networked teams have been proven to perform better as they empower their members, interface with different other groups and collaborate internally and externally in more effective ways.
And finally, a networked team is not as strong as its weakest tie because it is resilient (small world characteristic). It is as strong as its core structure which is much stronger than a single player. 

Engineering a networked team

As we’ve said before, if the organizational context does not offer the right ecosystem for networked teams to thrive, any attempt to build one will fail systematically. Indeed, “Culture eats strategy for lunch”. So before engaging in the engineering of a networked team, make sure the general context won’t hinder its progress.

 

1. The map: X-Raying your teams’ external and internal ties is the first step. A Social Network Analysis of every team member’s relationships with colleagues in and out-side the team’s boundaries can help profile the actors and give a general overview of the network’s structure.

 

2. The measures: Cohesion, centralization and clique analysis are three measures to start with.
The measures addressing network cohesion are the density of the network (number of linkages), its average path length and diameter (longest possible path in the network to which extent linkages effectively connect nodes). 
Centralisation of a network entails the emergence of  ‘hubs’ which are highly-connected nodes. While peripheral structures of nodes with a lower degree of centrality emerge, highly differentiated structures are known to be generally more robust. 
Clique analysis looks into subgroups using the clustering coefficient. It has been proven that the most efficient network architecture is the small world topology, where cohesive subgroups are connected to each other.  
3. The gap: Once the measures are laid on the table, all is left is bridging the gap between the “As-Is” and the “To-Be” networks. It is not an easy task as it grazes organizational and cultural aspects. And there is no silver bullet. Many initiatives can be taken according to the problem at hand and the context of the organization. If we note, for example, many peripheral members that barely link to the subgroups, a  mentoring program can be implemented to shrink their distance from the hubs, giving them access to the majority of team members. If the team looks highly cliquish with no interconnection among subgroups, maybe it’s time for some conflict management workshops… 

While knowledge workers are the working force of an organization, teams are its backbone. If teams can really be businesses within the business, and of they can leverage the power of networks, then there is no saying to the potential they can unleash.

To bond or to bridge, is that the question?

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Photo courtesy of shoothead

I remember having read, few months back, about the differences between networking behaviors in the workplace relatively to gender. The study (that I wasn’t lucky to find again) stated that while men tend to create small interlocked networks within the workplace, women had more access to networks outside the company’s walls. I’m not sure about the viability of such generalization but the major take away is the dichotomy there seems to be between bonding inside the organization vs bridging beyond it.

The bridging/bonding social capital

The bonding vs bridging question has actually been of interest to many ‘Social Capital’ researchers. While there is still no consensus over the definition of social capital in the research circle, most definitions focus on the benefits Individuals derive from knowing others with whom they form networks of interconnected agents.

It is worth mentioning that the effects of social capital aren’t necessarily positive. For example, while dense networks may provide useful resources such as improved quality of  information, a means for control, influence and power; the danger of closed social networks lies in the fact that the relation specific capital that is developed over time may lead to a tendency to stick to existing linkages and networks start to suffocate. (Beugelsdijk)

In his book, Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American community, Puttnam distinguished between ‘bridging social capital’ as bonds of connectedness that are formed across diverse social groups, and ‘bonding social capital’ that cements only homogenous groups.

So if we translate the study in such terms, it seems that women, as opposed to men, value their bridging social capital more than their bonding social capital. We could try to depict the whys and hows of such a difference but a more pertinent question for me is: Which networking strategy is more effective (regardless of who adopted it)?

To bond or to bridge?

When it comes to social networks, the number of links does not always matter. Besides, the fact that every link is costly to maintain (in time and effort) makes it humanly impossible for us to go beyond certain limitations. So the quality and type of the links between agents is far more influential; making the question of bonding vs bridging even more pertinent to ask.

It is obvious that within the workplace, one cannot survive unless he is woven inside the organizational network. Such a network offers access to information, a shared vision and collective goals. It is then much natural for most workers to aim for bonding than for Bridging. In power of the networked workers, I stressed on the necessity of spanning structural holes (aka bridging) because it’s the one that is counter-intuitive. On daily basis, we tend to follow an unconscious bias, linking with nodes we already know, which are inevitably the more connected nodes of our network; while much more opportunities lay in the ones outside of our immediate reach.

Bonding leads to strong ties that take a lot of effort to maintain. On the other hand, it takes a great effort to reach out towards non-trivial nodes. It is then easy to see how both networking strategies have rewards and costs. And this creates tradeoffs in the design of an optimal network structure.

Hence we should not be asking “To bond or to bridge?” since we cannot do without either one of them. A far more interesting question for the employer and the organization would be: how much can we do of both?

Lamia Ben.

The power of networked workers

Wired


Photo courtesy of Ivan Walsh

Meet Sara, she Works in IT, takes lunch with marketing and often gets together with friends from sales to chill out after work. She’s an active twitter user, she blogs and often takes part of IT events.

Meet Omar, he Works in IT as well, takes lunch and solely hangs out with his friends from IT. His social online presence is restricted to Facebook where he connects with family and friends. He almost never attends IT events unless he has to (for professional reasons).

Sara and Omar may both be good at what they do. They may both have great people skills and are great assets to the organization. But one thing is sure, Omar will never be as valuable as Sara, and here is why: Sara is a networked worker.


What is a networked worker?           

They go under different names: Weavers, brokers or connectors. Networked workers are knowledge workers who happen to be the bridges between various social networks that would’ve never overlapped without their presence. They link different networks and thereby recombine the different cultures of these networks to make out a unique style of their own. They may not be central in their respective networks but they draw value from the variety of networks they belong to.


Why are Networked workers valuable to the organization?

Here is the thing about networked workers: because of the unique role they play in filling up structural holes in networks, they become indispensable. They’re the go-to people when seeking information or looking for the latest updates. They’re in the loop, not because they want to be but because people want them there. Networked workers get the best out of weak ties. They browse through their networks and can do wonders just by linking the right people together.

Within the organization, networked workers have a broader view of the activity. They aren’t trapped in their daily job bubble; rather they see the organization’s strategy at work across different departments. They come out with more rational decisions because they have better knowledge of their impact. They follow better routes for execution because they have built-in expertise detectors and they can be influent enough to make the case for change within the organization.

Networked workers are the interface between different networks. They are therefore in contact with various ideas, dogmas and cultures. They don’t fall for the homophily trap and thereby are much prone to coming up with innovative ideas.

They are often great carriers and evangelists of the organization’s culture. They bring back the value of their own relationships and contact networks to the organization (identify new hires for example) and can often reinforce their organization’s brand and reputation by providing a human face to the organization. Networked workers can be the finger on the pulse of changes in the organization’s environment.


What’s in it for the Networked worker?

Four words: connections, influence, innovation and opportunities. 

Connections: Networked workers may not have as much connections as Hubs but they have access to different networks. This can be far more valuable in the connected world we live in.

Influence: The unique role that these knowledge workers play in filling structural holes and their unique position grant them enough influence to have their voice heard within their networks.

Innovation: People from the same social network tend to converge towards a common current of thought and that can only be harmful for innovation. Networked workers on the other hand belong to various networks and thereby avert falling for this trap. (I wrote more on this here:  Homophily is #1 innovation enemy)

Opportunities: Being part of multiple networks means being in touch with diverse people which can translate into opportunities.    


How to become a Networked worker?

Becoming a networked worker doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of socializing, networking and engagement. But always keep in mind that you can only be part of a network if its members want you there. It’s therefore extremely important to be Genuine and to help as much as you can. You can’t expect to get immediate benefits unless you’ve put enough effort to grow your networks.

Here are some tips that could help you become a networked worker:

1. Socialize with co-workers from different departments. Attend events and conferences, meet experts from your field and beyond. 

2. Enhance your e-reputation: have an online presence, listen and engage in conversations. Blog and/or be present on social networks (twitter for instance).

3. Diversify your online contacts. Don’t get trapped into your career bubble.

4. Reach out and offer as much help as you can. Give unconditionally. 

5. Always seize the opportunity to extend an online relationship into real life. 

6. Be yourself!

 

In the end

They say it’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know. But the truth is, it’s about who knows you and what networks you’re part of. 


Lamia Ben.

 

Thinking networks for better execution

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Image courtesy: jurvetson

Summary: We have seen how ONA (Organizational Network Analysis) can help decision makers align collaboration initiatives with strategy and drive innovation within their organization. The third article from this series will focus on how ONA can help achieve better execution.

“The addition of structure makes everyone more conscious of the work tasks at hand, which limits the desire for purely social interaction… Purely social applications are too social, and purely structured applications provide too much structure. Combinations of the two are where the work gets done fastest and most effectively”.  Tom Davenport

Here is what we’ve been hearing lately: “Management and teamwork are social.  Do more of it, and do it more socially.” The problem with such approach is that it claims that going social is the ultimate solution. It’s not always the case. Yes, teamwork is social, and collaboration is an increasingly critical feature in organizations. However, costs attached to collaborations are far from insignificant. And thus, in many cases no collaboration can turn to be a better option than “bad” collaboration.  Any initiative for enhancing execution must therefore identify the “bad” collaboration from the “good” one.

 What is bad collaboration?

Imagine your organization as a set of complex networks where nodes are knowledge workers linked by ties. Each tie has what we call in graph theory a “weight” that is a value or a cost we associate to the link. Assessing the cost for example of interactions can be done by calculating (the number of hours spent on that interaction x the cost of a knowledge worker labor hour).

Bad collaboration reflects network inefficiencies that render a cost of interaction exceeding the value of the outcome. There can be multiple causes of this: outdated role definitions, redundancies or ineffective decision right allocation…

How do we fight these inefficiencies?

By increasing productive interactions and reducing unproductive ones. “Easier said than done” most of us would say, and I couldn’t agree more. That’s why there is an increasing need in combining process improvement methodologies with ONA to get the best results. While the first gives insight on replications of efforts in the execution process, the later help identify the unproductive interactions and put a number on collaborative initiatives (thus measure their pertinence). Just how Tom Davenport states that structured applications need to be combined with social ones, a structured process perspective complements the social network perspective.

Example: redesigning processes may help identify better routs for execution but only ONA can pinpoint the relational changes that need to occur in the new environment. Having an idea on which ties to build and which to leave behind can certainly help realize the anticipated efficiency of the process reengineering.

The most performing execution teams, as stated by Cross and Thomas,  are those who share the following network characteristics:  “collaborations between the right roles at relevant points in a project, lateral connectivity across team members, lack of hierarchical information seeking, and diverse ties to relevant parties both inside and outside the organization.” Better execution within your organization comes down then, to appropriate connectivity and focused collaboration combined with efficient processes.  

Have your organization reengineered its processes lately? Has it been a success or do you feel there is room for improvement? Do you agree that an additional network perspective could be the answer? Your thoughts are welcome.

 

Lamia Ben.

Thinking Networks for better innovation

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Image courtesy: gapingvoid.com

The “sole inventor working alone” is almost total myth: most new ideas occur in networks of thinkers who are mulling over similar issues. If you want to be creative, be in a network. ~Steven Johnson


 One thing is sure: innovation is not a one-man matter. It takes engagement and ongoing exchange with internal and external actors to ignite creative ideas within any organization. But what is more fascinating is that most breakthrough innovations are recombinations of existing ideas or technologies. If many organizations fail to innovate, the main reason would be either their inability to leverage their internal and external networks in a way that recognizes opportunities or their incapacity to tap into the hidden business value of collaboration in order to recombine expertise and ideas. The first problem is a failure to exploit expertise at an organization’s disposal, the second is an inability to reshape the networks in ways that create value and open new markets.


In their compelling book “Driving results through social networks”, Rob Cross & Robert J. Thomas assert that the major barriers to innovation result not from failures of individual genius but from failures of collaboration. They actually do a great job pinpointing the major obstacles to innovation seen through a network perspective: 

Fragmentation. Collaboration often breaks down across functional lines, technical capabilities, and occupational subcultures in ways that invisibly undermine strategic innovation efforts. What is interesting is that network fragmentation often arises from the organization’s formal structure itself!

Domination.  The voices of a few central network members can drown out novel ideas and drive innovation efforts along traditional trajectories. The constitution of some cliques can form and preclude the integration of important expertise, creating an invisible barrier to innovation and execution that the team was formed to bridge in the first place.

Insularity. The inability to recognize and leverage relevant external expertise can yield excessive cost structures and delays that result in missed market opportunities.

The use of Social Network Analysis is particularly interesting in diagnosing these specific issues. Identifying the white spaces in the formal network renders information about possible fragmentations. Analyzing clusters within the organization’s informal networks can give clues on cliques, on who’s central in the network and who’s isolated. Collaboration patterns’ analysis gives an idea on what supports innovation and what hinders it.

Once the issues spotted, targeted initiatives can ensue. Decision makers can:

       Incorporate brokers (knowledge workers bridging the network’s gaps) into the innovation team in order to channel external information to the team

       Recombine existing expertise and resources to produce innovation breakthroughs 

       Ensure connectivity among those with the right expertise in a given domain and those with the right influence in the organization to help get things done 

       Ensure collaboration between the right roles at relevant points in a project

       Bridge the white spaces by enhancing connectivity across team members

       Decrease the hierarchical information seeking that creates bottlenecks and less efficient decision-making processes

       Encourage ties to relevant parties both inside and outside the organization

      


Thinking networks when trying to stir innovation can benefit the organization by suggesting targeted initiatives that save time and money. The question that remains is: is relying on networks enough? Boris Pluskowski once said that we exist as a community, but we achieve as a team. Preparing the right conditions for serendipity to take place isn’t guarantor of the occurring of breakthrough innovation. Formal structure is just as necessary. It is therefore critical that leaders ensure the right balance of reliance on formal structure (to ensure consistency and efficiency) and networks (to ensure innovation).

 

Lamia Ben

 

Related article:

Thinking Networks for a better alignment

 

Thinking Networks for a better alignment

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Image courtesy: gapingvoid.com

“Adding a new “Network layer” to our thinking process would bring clarity to everything around us and help us uncover the most complex mysteries” from last post: Musing: Think Networks.

We can’t say this enough: One of the most essential ingredients for a better collaboration within an organization isn’t its tools but rather its Culture. 

Culture is critical to any organization’s effectiveness. But more often that we’d like to admit, top management’s conception of culture is rarely aligned with the true underlying subcultures reigning in the organization. Sometimes, groups within the same unit can unconsciously do their best to negate their peers’ hard work. But how do we identify such misalignments?

In their insightful book “driving results through social networks”, R.L. Cross and R.J. Thomas present ONA as the ultimate solution. ONA (= Organizational Network Analysis) consists in x-raying the organization using Social Network theory to get a clear view of the different networks evolving in the shadow of Formal structures.

That surely implies that an organization is a set of informal networks that cannot be seen through traditional lens and tools. But what it essentially states is: Informal networks are a more realistic representation of how the work gets done. So modeling these networks can help diagnose collaboration’s shortcomings and culture misalignments.

We tend to have this reflex: better collaboration = more connectivity. The problem with such approach is that collaboration requires people’s time and drawing a line between every two nodes of a unit’s social graph would cost more than the value it delivers. So the aim would be increasing collaboration at points that would create value and decreasing connectivity where it causes more harm than good -> appropriate connectivity, focused collaboration.

The second problem that leaders tend to overlook is how cultural dynamics can shape collaboration within the organization and how they go beyond the formal structures and value statements. A network perspective gives a clearer view on how culture is distributed throughout the organization. This can help identify diverging values, practices, and goals that are invisibly hindering any collaborative initiatives.

Knowing where the problem lays precisely is often halfway to the answer. Thinking networks when dealing with collaboration helps visualize the key points that need bridging, diagnose the negative cultural carriers on whom cultural change initiative need to focus, locate connectors who need empowerment and recognition and so on. Having a network perspective not only gives a clear view on what’s happening, but also gives decision makers heads up on what should be done next.

 

Lamia Ben.

Musing: Think Networks

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Image courtesy: gapingvoid.com

Imagine you’ve always seen the world in 2D and then one day, BAM! You can see in 3 dimensions. Wouldn’t that be life changing? Now imagine if there was one more “dimension” to add (rest assured, no quantum theory ahead). Wouldn’t you want to consider it as well?

One dimension is more than game-changing. It will rock your perception of the world. It may demystify complex concepts, uncover hidden causes and give you access to information you’ve never knew existed…What kind of dimension I’m talking about? Make it more a “layer” to add up to one’s conception of the world: Networks.

We are very familiar with the power of social networks, of the www or Facebook’s open Graph. But what most of us don’t know is, researchers found these networks not to be that much unique. The same rules organizing today’s WWW (Believe it or not, there are rules! It’s not as chaotic as it may seem) have been observed in other networks ranging from genetic, neural*, electronic, to social organizations.

In his highly interesting book “ Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means”, Barabasi walks us through the time-line of the network science while using a very non-mathematical smooth style. From the Euler Era, father of the Graph theory, to today’s complex economic models, the ultimate take out from the book is to never rule out the Network thinking

“No matter what organizational level we look at, the same robust and universal laws that govern nature’s webs seem to greet us. The challenge is for economic and network research alike to put these laws into practice”

So, what if everything could be seen as a network? What if adding a new “Network layer” to our thinking process would bring clarity to everything around us and help us uncover the most complex mysteries (the map of life for example)? Let’s think Networks, shall we? What is there to loose anyway? 

*Neural networks are being the subject of a multitude of studies. You may want to check this very intriguing TED Talk by Sebastian Seung: I am my connectom.

Lamia Ben

On applying Dynamic Network Analysis (DNA)

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Image courtesy: morguefile 

Once you begin to study networks it is difficult not to see them everywhere.” ~ Sanjeev Goyal
As I was going through some papers for my PHD, I stumbled upon this interesting representation of organizations called : Meta-Matrix

The meta-Matrix has been introduced by Kathleen M. Carley from the Carnegie Mellon University to represent the entities within an organization and the relationships between them. The meta-matrix is a multi-color, multiplex representation that focuses on people, knowledge/resources and events/tasks.

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What is interesting about this representation is that it sees an organization as a set of dynamic networks and I couldn’t agree more. Changes in one network cascade into changes in the others; relationships in one network imply relationships in another. 

While classical SNA (Social Network Analysis) concepts applied to organizations focus on only a cell or two of the table above, the meta-matrix representation takes into account the different interactions between the components of every organization and considers the overlapping between the networks. This helps create a number of metrics that do a better job in explaining the evolution, performance, and adaptability of the network’s dynamics. 

How can such representation be used?

In her book, Complexity leadership – Volume 1, Mary Uhl-Bien presents interesting applications of Dynamic Network Analysis along with the meta-matrix representation. She states that collecting and analyzing data from the social, knowledge and task networks can help measure the communication density within an enterprise; which is “a measure of how many communication relations exist as compared to the total that could exist. This can provide feedback on the relational coupling and social capital structure of the organization”.

The model can also be used to forecast knowledge diffusion. Collecting data from the knowledge network defines who knows what, the social network would define who is talking to whom and the task network could be used to weight the extent to which each agent talks to each other. Analyzing such data can help when implementing a KM solution fro example…

Although one cannot deny the complexity of such approach (most DNA applications are purely hypothetical), seeing the organizations as a set of dynamic networks is probably the most accurate and near-real representation that has been introduced so far.

So DNA offers huge potential but it is still far from going mainstream. We need effective tools that make the whole theoretical process transparent to the knowledge workers. And most of all, we need to raise the awareness that such models can definitely help organizations better structure themselves and face the rising complexity of their environment.

Lamia Ben