Sunday, February 26, 2006

Office Networks in Business Week

I've been catching up on some social network blogs, and have pointers to 2 short pieces I enjoyed in Business Week Online: IBM: Untangling Office Connections and The Office Chart That Really Counts.

In the former article, Kate Ehrlich at IBM Research notes that you want weak ties to fuel innovation, but strong ties to execute on it.

I think of the process of innovation as having three different phases: One is the generation of the ideas, and that's where you really need to have, not everybody in a group, but a few people who are connected to people who are outside. That's where you get these real "Wow, I never thought that something from that domain could be applied to this domain." So when you're talking about innovation, you've got to have somebody who can bring in the ideas from the outside.

In the second phase, you need to connect those people with others in the organization who are translators, who can say, "I can see that that idea might work in the company or group that you're in, but this is what we need in order to make it work for our product or our service or our process."

Then there's a third phase. You've translated it. You've got it set up. Then it's the delivery, and the delivery now is internally within the group. Now you want very strong ties between people. In network parlance, with innovation, you want weak ties, where people are more connected to those outside the group. [In the delivery phase,] you need strong ties in order to get the innovation executed.

In my more cynical moments, I question whether most businesses really want their employees innovating -- if they're not a research lab, that is. Most employees have too much ordinary work to do to take time to innovate and innovation from the ground up is hard to manage and control. But then I remember that finding a new way to do your work is innovation, too.

The latter piece has some excellent observations about the potential dangers of showing off who is connected to whom by social network diagrams. The same concerns apply to many visualizations of statistics in office life, of course.

For all of the benefits, charting informal networks can be disruptive. "Leaders feel pretty threatened by this," says Katzenbach principal Zia Khan, speaking of people who hold high perches on the organization chart but are more isolated on the informal map... It's O.K. for some people, such as those who spend a lot of time with customers or have expertise in niche areas, to show up on the periphery of the web. Maps can also highlight which employees might be too connected and therefore a potential bottleneck.

Confidentiality is also a touchy issue. A map that reveals who is well-connected and who is not can be destructive if it is shared too widely. "I know who I named, but when I look at the map, I might see [that person] didn't name me back," says Tracy Cox, director of enterprise integration at aerospace and defense contractor Raytheon Co. Now, says Cox, who does network analyses for the company's seven businesses, that hypothetical employee "knows that he is not valuable to his boss. And not only does he know it, but 50 of his closest friends know it, too."

This came up for me during my research days; and needless to say, it was an issue even if they didn't know who was A or B in the chart -- the map itself was frightening because everyone suspected they might be the X on the fringe.

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