Can social networks defeat hierarchy in the enterprise?

Enterprise social networkWatching the Enterprise Social trends emerge has raised interesting questions, not only in terms of the new technology as an enabler but how the enterprise makeup is going to look and operate in the future.

Having been involved in many transformation programs, it always amazes me to see the same top-down hierarchical business operating models applied when redesigning the process architecture: Silo – Division – Department – Activity – Capability.

Wrong model

They all amounted to the same rigid structure no matter how it was labelled. To a certain extent, a lot of the large consultancies have sold these models for years and as a result, business entities would hear much the same thing around their industry when looking to adopt change. Which now poses an interesting question in relation to benchmarking an enterprise: How can you benchmark when potentially it’s the wrong model in the first place?

Hidden network

Now, in light of the new (r)evolution we need to carefully peel back architectures of old and reveal the hidden network of resources that operate ‘underground’…who are actually supporting the business in ways never seen or understood before because they fall outside of the strict roles imposed in a hierarchy.

Power of networking

Networking is recognized as a major influence on an employee’s ability to work well in an organization and be successful. In fact, the most successful people in the world possess the capability to influence and shape the opinions of others, which today places greater emphasis on the types of networking a person does.

Internal enterprise networks have a major impact on organizational effectiveness, but more importantly these types of networks provide major business advantages for the participants.

Networked enterprise

There are major advantages when comparing a hierarchy against a networked enterprise community, for example:

Formal and hierarchical divisional entities consist of areas such as Operations, Performance Management, Human Resources, Sales, Manufacturing, …They are defined by organizational boundaries so are rigid and hard to change. Within them exist work domains such as virtual or project led teams who are organized, task oriented, they cross organizational boundaries but tend to have a ‘closed membership’.

A networked community however is shaped informally, has common interests, is self motivated, is more innovative due to lack of constraints, has a network of experts and knowledge communities, exists outside organizational boundaries and works on an ‘open membership’.

The most effective enterprise networks contain high-functioning people who are extremely skilled, knowledgeable, powerful, and who have strong personal networks. The informal network without the hierarchy and bureaucracy encourages the most interaction and achieves the most positive results.

Social skills

Networking has always been an essential social skill founded on the interdependence of people. We all rely on the support and cooperation of others to achieve our goals. Networking within the enterprise involves bonding, sharing expertise and investing time and effort into others. It’s a natural operating model which has remained untapped for years because we always seek comfort in building walls between resources in order to correctly label them.

Key departures

There’s another advantage in understanding the social enterprise network dynamic: What is the impact of a key networked resource leaving the organization? Right now it’s built on their position in a traditional hierarchy and how many people sit below and above them in the chain. Under a community operating model that span of influence could be exponential yet completely hidden. Would you really let this person go if you understood how much the larger community relied on them ? I seriously doubt you would.

You think your business looks like an organisation chart when in fact it’s more like a Twitter map.

The social convergence across industry verticals matter for a number of reasons:

  • Timely identification of Subject Matter Experts and stakeholders. Avoid duplication of efforts by finding individuals in an enterprise with experience in the topic or relevant parties to involve. Like a tag cloud in a blog, topics of interest are associated with the real SMEs for rapid location of knowledge.
  • For re-organizations to understand how the business networks interact and translate them into the formal organizational charts
  • To identify the impact of a key person leaving, both internally and externally
  • For new employees to more quickly integrate into a company by seeking expertise, build relationships and their own networks
  • To understand customer interactions and how better serve them
  • To identify the key influencers within a group

Key differentiators for enterprise social tools should be:

  • That the tool allows for individuals to set up profiles with a high degree of automation and control, meaning that the effort required by each individual is minimized
  • That any centrally held information that can be associated with an individual can be added to the profile – for example location, grade or title
  • That the profile can be amended to allow specific information to be added by individuals
  • That themes/ tag clouds can be easily searched, allowing easy identification of experts in a particular topic, as well as who is currently working on what
  • That a network visualization tool exists so that when an expert has been identified, it is also possible to see any common contacts, which could be used to facilitate an introduction

There are companies within  industry that employ the mining of email information to create these networks and are considered intrusive as well as under threat from Data Protection and Privacy issues. Where enterprise social is advantageous is that the technology enabler is completely transparent in how it’s deployed, and the network becomes visible to all.

As I’ve stated in previous posts this is game changing in a lot of ways for how organizations will view themselves in years to come. Time to throw away your old operating model and embrace your enterprise community.

This article appeared in BPMredux in Sept 2011 and has been lightly edited.

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Categories: Future of work, Human Resources, Information Technology, Social / Collaboration

Author:Theo Priestley

"I had more creative ideas from Theo in 6 months than I have had in 6 years from most people." Theo Priestley is one of the most recognised independent technology industry influencers and evangelists, ranking in the Top 100 thought leaders across Virtual/ Augmented Reality, FinTech, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Internet of Things and future trends. Theo has written insights for Forbes, Wired, The European Magazine, Venturebeat to name a few, and has been interviewed for many online publications including the BBC on his thoughts on technology and the future. A regular paid keynote speaker and panelist at conferences and events, Theo is engaged for his forthright views and isn't afraid to challenge conventional thinking and the marketing hype surrounding the industry when presenting, never pulling punches to get the message across on how technology can be applied to improve business and the customer experience. He has also successfully organised and run TEDx and Ignite events. Highly active across social networks, he sits in the Top 1% for social media engagement on Kred and Klout and is constantly sharing articles and his analysis that he feels his audience would be interested in. Theo is also active in the startup community, mentoring within UK and US accelerators and sits on a number of advisory boards. Former VP and Chief Technology Evangelist at a Top 25 European enterprise software company with a career spanning both innovation strategy and delivery of software and business change in Financial Services, and as an independent technology industry analyst. Follow Theo on Twitter @tprstly or connect here directly for constant insights on tech and marketing trends. • Top 1% Influencer on Kred (915) • Top 1% Influencer on Klout (70+) • 12,000+ Followers on LinkedIn • 13,000+ Followers on Twitter • Recognised Top Influencer in AI, Virtual/ Augmented Reality, Fintech, IOT and Wearable Tech, Big Data and Analytics.

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3 Comments on “Can social networks defeat hierarchy in the enterprise?”

  1. Paul Barrett
    January 15, 2013 at 3:42 am #

    Perfect timing Theo. I am in the middle of a discussion with a customer about hierarchical versus networked relationships and the social tide, so this gave me a really helpful citation.


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