“The problem is how to combine the energy, innovation and resilience of decentralisation with the ability to provide some direction and to cumulate and share knowledge, ideas and best practice that comes from centralisation. That is where network design comes in — or, more broadly, strategies of connection.” Anne Marie Slaughter
When it comes to facing the unavoidable transformation of our companies, we are learning a great deal from networked organisations. This article summarises the four factors that should be considered in any initiative that aims at changing the culture of any company, be it directly or as a by-product.
What do I mean by initiatives?
Here are some examples of what companies are doing:
- We keep reinventing the wheel, so we are building a knowledge platform where people can share and find useful files.
- We have acquired companies in different countries and we have little cohesion between offices. We are building a network of experts so people can find help without having to go through the formal chain of command.
- We attract hundreds of volunteers who love our mission but they can’t figure out how to contribute. We have built an online platform so people can discover other people and get together to work on projects.
- Our market is becoming more and more competitive and our services are not valued by the clients as they used to. We are creating a community of practice to innovate around ‘data science’ capabilitites.
Strategies of connection are based on small victories
Putting in place strategies of connection can be challenging due to company culture and resistance to change. I already wrote about how to design your transformation journey by coupling together short-term business objectives and humble changes in how things get done. While impressive, I don’t think companies need to be as radical as Haier in their strategy to become a platform.
This is what we have learned at OuiShare that might be relevant for some companies out there. Any transformational initiative that wants to exploit those network dynamics would seriously benefit from these four ingredients:
Ingredient #1 — Openness
The command and control days are done and dusted. A good idea is not enough. Initiatives start with a good idea but need to attract and generate momentum. Heard of pull-based motivation? Openness generates participation.
Ingredient #2 — Informality
I often raise some eyebrows when I mention informality as a key ingredient. Historically employees could build relationships with relative ease, since they used to work in the same office and they had plenty of opportunity to chat and to get to know each other. If you have worked in a company that occupies different floors of a building, you probably know what I mean. As we become more distributed, these opportunities of creating connections become more rare.
When we build distributed networks, such as Communities of Practice, networks of experts, offices in different countries, network of freelancers, etc we should ensure we allow for informality. In fact, we should design for informality.
I see many companies falling in this trap. Initiatives start with a lot of energy, with plenty of legitimacy from top managers, with statements such as “We have to boost collaboration and knowledge exchange” and they go ahead and deploy a software solution (or worse, they develop it themselves). In a matter of two months there is a group of 200 people sharing a platform and they are expected to share and help each other. As they say in a big media agency in London when they want to dismiss an idea: “Put it on Yammer!”
In my experience, start small — small team, small objectives, small deadlines — and allow for informal interactions. Informality builds trust.
Ingredient #3 — Experimentation
I struggled a lot with this one. I have an engineering mind and I never gave proper value to ‘work in progress’ stuff. Often I would hold on to my designs, improving my work before I shared it with the other stakeholders. I felt my company’s reputation and my own were at stake. How wrong I was. Agile teams are so much more effective, by creating the right prototypes, by issuing early, by getting feedback quickly and by correcting the course of their work.
A culture of experimentation is the real substance of innovation, it goes without saying. Still, many organisations struggle to promote such a culture. People need to feel safe and when we start an initiative there is much me can do to make them feel safe.
Ingredient #4 — Knowledge Sharing
Once an initiative gets underway, we don’t want it to be isolated and to work on its new silo. From the onset we need to nurture a culture of working out loud, of sharing even when stuff is still ‘work in progress’. The benefits of doing so are many: we build feedback loops, we gain serendipitous innovation, other teams discover us, we create connections between professionals, we accrue reputation, etc. Sharing knowledge allows for scale.
Ask yourself these questions
Take a minute to think of one or two initiatives that are happening at your company. Whatever is it that you are doing, ask yourself where it sits in the following chart, and maybe you can think of some easy wins that could move some of the dials towards the left…
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Links you might find interesting
The Human Networks Festival — In the face of growing complexity and global challenges, humans are innovating in the way we come together to work on the answers. Join us in Barcelona at the Human Networks Festival to learn, contribute and connect.
Rethink & Remix is the OuiShare space for all things about business and organizational transformation for more collaborative, more value-driven and more meaningful work.
OuiShare Open Source — This is where we are opening up the knowledge of OuiShare (or, I should say, all the explicit knowledge we manage to capture).
The Future of Recruitment — As companies are transforming towards outside-inside open models, employer branding and brand experience are inevitably blending into one