Understanding Brokerage in Organizations

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Source: A. Mrvar: Network Analysis using Pajek

I stumbled upon this article by two Harvard Business School researchers who were looking at Employee-suggestion systems from a different angle. While process improvement isn’t my field of expertise, this passage really caught my eyes:

Tucker also explains this finding in terms of “boundary spanning.” Nurses are at the far end of an internal supply chain. Even if they discover a gap between what the supply chain is providing and what the patient needs, they usually don’t have the authority or knowledge to go back to those supply departments and fix the problem; a higher-level person needs to be involved.
“This finding tells us that process improvement in hospitals will require people to work across departmental boundaries, where the problems happen, rather than within a particular department,” Tucker says.

Boundaries are often the equivalent of information flow and collaboration breakdowns in organizations. They arise for different reasons. The most common boundaries, as identified by Kate Ehrlich are:

  • Functional: Breakdowns between divisions (e.g., marketing and finance)
  • Geographic: Breakdowns between geographically separated locations (e.g., US and European offices, East Coast and West Coast offices)
  • Tenure: Breakdowns between long time employees and new employees
  • Organizational: Breakdowns because of M&A scenarios, or among leadership networks

So, if boundaries are obstacles to information flow for most networks, spanning or bridging them is a goal organizations seek to attain (as it’s the case of the hospitals in the HBS’s study). Employees who span these “Structural holes” and tie together otherwise disconnected people and information/knowledge entities, are referred to as brokers.  In order to understand the role of these employees, I’ll refer to Mrvar’s classification of the different types of brokers:

  • Coordinators are those who mediate between the members of the same group
  • When twomembers of a group use amediator fromoutside, this mediator is called an itinerant broker
  • representative is someone who regulates the flow of information and goods from his own group
  • Gatekeepers regulate the flow of information and goods to his own group
  • And finally liaisons are those that mediate between two groups while not belonging to either of them

Due to their unique position, brokers gain enough Social Capital to make them as much indispensable for the network as they are dangerous. Their bridging role translates into Control of the flow from one part of the network to another. They can thus be great change agents. Yet, the negative spin suggests that brokers can play a “Tertius” Strategy where they induce competition or conflict between neighbors who are not linked directly. This could render information retention problems, more conflicts and hence structural holes (which were supposed to be spanned in the first place).

For this reason, it is very important to identify and recognize your spanners early on. This is challenging because, as these employees sit in the white spaces between network pockets, they are not highly visible  and are frequently not in a position of formal authority. Cross and Thomas state that leaders can only recognize 30% of their key brokers which shows how much potential is lost because we are not leveraging network players as we should.         

Are you aware of the brokers around you? What are you doing to turn their power to the advantage of the organization?

The promise of Social Network Analysis

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Photo courtesy of quinn.anya

Here is a fact: Organizations are a set of interwoven networks, embedded in bigger networks. They thrive or die according to their networks’ health. And while most organizations are aware of that, few ever act with a network-aware mind.

A social network approach is primarily concerned with the interconnections between [actors], rather than being focused on their attributes or behaviors. The patterning of such connections – the configuration of positions and relationships – constitutes the structure of a social network, from which the social behavior of individual members can be analyzed and interpreted. This structural arrangement has important implications for the [actors] involved as well as for the overall social network, insofar as it enhances or constrains their access and control abilities.

~Emergent Leadership in Virtual Collaboration Settings: A Social Network Analysis Approach. J. Sutanto, C. Tan, B. Battistini et al

Thinking organizations as networks relies on different lenses:

– A micro lens zooms on the employee and his ego-centric network
– A macro lens xrays the interactions between different subgroups of the organization (business units, project teams…)
– A holistic lens studies the organization taking into account its context (socio-economic context, partners, …)

Each lens requires different network measures and concepts. And each lens answers a different set of questions. Example: The HR department needs to know how the new recruits are doing after 6 months of hiring them. A viable approach would be to conduct an ego-centric network analysis on the recruits. The main objective is to identify the ties among the new recruits and other employees. If the recruits are still peripheral it’s time to take action to help them integrate. Launching an internal mentorship program for instance can help new recruits meet key collaborators that could help them advance their work and nurture a sense of belonging.

Thinking organizations as networks doesn’t necessarily come with extraordinarily out-of-the-box answers but it surely sheds the lights on problems from a different angle. The emergent body of research and application of Social Network Analysis has provided some important insights on how thinking with a network perspective can be associated with organizational benefits (better collaboration, enhanced innovation etc.). However, there always seems to be quite a chasm between academia and corporate business and many techniques developed by the research community still haven’t made it in the real-world yet. An interesting classification I came across the other day aims to cross this gap to some extent as it tries to map SNA techniques to business processes. The framework is based on the APQC Process Classification Framework and lists the various uses of social network analysis depending on the business process at hand (Operating or Management and support process).
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Source: Social Network Analysis and Mining for Business Applications. F. Bonchi, C. Castillo, A. Gionis, and A Jaimes, Yahoo! Research Barcelona 

I have come to think of this framework as a good list of the promises Social Network Analysis makes. While it is true that many techniques stated above are still in their infancy and face numerous technical and cultural challenges, it is only a good thing to keep an eye on their progress. You may never know when the opportunity of applying them presents itself.
We will go into the details of these techniques and the challenges they face on our upcoming blog posts. Until then have a look at your business processes and see if any of these techniques would fit. We would love to hear your feedback!