We're all familiar with the minerals graphite and diamond. Although both are made of carbon, these two substances are radically different. While graphite is a common mineral, dull and opaque, diamond is rare, brilliant, transparent, and hard. Graphite can be used as a lubricant, while diamond can be used for abrasion. How can two chemically-identical substances be so different?
The answer is connections (see the below table). In graphite, carbon atoms are bound together mostly crosswise in sheets that lie on top of one another. In contrast, the carbon atoms in diamond are connected every which way and create some of the strongest bonds in the universe. It's the connections between carbon atoms that define the distinct properties of graphite and diamond. In short, connection matters.
Connection matters not only in the physical world, but in the social world as well. In recent years, social network analysis (SNA) has allowed us to X-ray organizations to understand the structure of the informal connections that link employees within a company (see the below network diagram).
SNA provides a way to understand who is talking to who about innovation, business development, and talent management. Increasingly, it is through these ad hoc social relationships (versus the traditional formal hierarchy) that problems get solved and decisions get made. If the organizational chart is the theory of how work is accomplished, the social network is the real world practice. Organizational experts, David Krackhardt and Jeffery Hanson, wrote in Harvard Business Review:
Many executives invest considerable resources in restructuring their companies, drawing and redrawing organizational charts only to be disappointed by the results. That's because much of the real work of companies happens despite the formal organization. Often what needs attention is the informal organization, the networks that employees form across functions and divisions to accomplish tasks fast. These informal networks can cut through formal reporting procedures to jump start stalled initiatives and meet extraordinary deadlines.
Not only do these social networks affect organizational outcomes, they also have a powerful impact on employees' individual performance. For example, Ron Burt, Professor of Sociology and Strategy, at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, has demonstrated that an employees' personal social network has a dramatic affect on their performance appraisals, compensation, promotions, and even the quality of their ideas.
One quick way to assess how well your personal social network works is by completing the Personal Network Worksheet below. Start by thinking about a specific business challenge you are currently facing. Next, write down the names of the people you have already contacted to discuss this challenge in the appropriate box on the matrix (it's OK to leave boxes blank). Finally, consider your completed matrix. What do you observe? Are you only talking to people in your own division, in your company? Do you include people above and below you in the corporate hierarchy? Who else could you speak to that you haven't already?
Personal Network Worksheet
How can we construct and leverage our own personal networks for the benefit of our organizations and ourselves? We first need to recognize the importance of our networks and then build and manage them in a considered way. We have to understand the structure of our network, where our ideas come from and who we rely on. At the end of the day, it is our ability to connect with others that allows our companies to perform efficiently and effectively. As the old adage says, "It's not always what you know, but who you know."
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Leadership Crescendo - Reflections and thoughts on leadership learned after thirty years of thinking about, experiencing, teaching and coaching executives for leadership effectiveness, written by Kaveh Naficy