Recently, I was speaking with leaders of an organization who would like to see their organization move towards greater cross-organizational collaboration. The organization in question has traditional vertical structures that we might consider silos. The organization has a reasonable degree of trust and goodwill among its members.
There are a variety of approaches that would help this organization become more collaborative. Some are more traditional than others. Most would require that the organization change from something which it is now to something else in the future. To varying degrees, this could involve changes in processes, behaviors, attitudes and mechanisms. If all of these approaches were used, we would say that the organization is being transformed.
As an alternative approach, how might our learning about networks apply to this organization to help it meet its need for greater cross-organizational collaboration?
How would such an organization become a networked organization? Would it require being transformed into something quite different from what it has been?
I would like to offer the hypothesis that having an existence as a network is something already latent within an organization. From a network perspective, the organization in this case does not need to be changed from what it is to something else. The organization already carries within it the potential to be a network. This potential just has to be released. Some of the literature speaks in terms of making the inherent network visible. In responding to the organization's need for greater cross-organizational collaboration, we can consider the possibilities of making explicit and enhancing its latent network. In doing so, we would need a different approach and mental model than traditional ones in the realm of change management, organization design and building collaboration. One helpful approach is based on the idea that interactions between roles in a network are exchanges of tangible and intangible value. Articles and books by Verna Allee and Mary Adams develop this approach and have been useful to me in thinking through the ideas in this post. By recognizing and strengthening these exchanges, especially with regard to the intangible aspects of exchanges, we can support greater collaboration.
The Latent Network
Networks are a normal part of the human condition. All living beings operate as networks. Our bodies are networks. Our brains are networks. Human beings when given the chance will reach out to one another. In the first Facebook experiment at Harvard, providing people with an appropriate application led to many previously unrelated people being connected to one another as a network. Social Network Analysis reflects how people in organizations do operate as networks with one anther albeit sometimes not so productively and without being aware of the totality of the networking being done.
A group of people operating as an enterprise in support of a common mission can add value in the pursuit of their mission by being in communication, sharing knowledge and being in relationship with others inside and external to the formal organization. I would call this a network. They can be a collaborative network by attending to the quality of conversations, interactions or intangible exchanges in the network.
When presented with a common goal which requires the support of each other and when unlimited by 19th and 20th century organizational assumptions and practices and supported by enabling factors and technology, I believe that the latent network will come to the surface.
I see this not as changing the organization to something that it is not but rather as releasing the latent potential of the organization and its members to operate in a way more natural to the (contemporary) world. Like any organism, the organization will naturally move in the direction of what gives it life and away from what is not healthy or productive.
Actualizing The Network Within
In this situation, the organization can realize its network and collaborative potential by pursuing the following path:
- Be clear about and publicize common goals and objectives that can drive network collaboration. Factor customer requirements into these goals and objectives.
- Identify what roles can add value to each goal or objective in producing the product, service or outcome. What roles can add value by providing support to build knowledge, competencies or relationships? Roles can include those external to the formal organization, e.g. providers, partners, customers who supply knowledge of their requirements.
- Identify the exchanges that currently take place between roles? Identify the exchanges that need to take place between roles? In this regard, tangible items can be exchanged, knowledge can be exchanged or other intangibles like voicing concerns, offering support. Consider how to build upon what the organization already does well.
- Support high quality conversations and exchanges and high quality actions to build competencies and relationships.
- Highlight value when and where it is produced and seek how to leverage it in service of the mission.
- Highlight the human and organizational values that already exist that will support knowledge flow, relationships, high quality conversations and exchanges.
- Build competencies and utilize technology that will support knowledge flow, relationships, high quality conversations and exchanges.
- Identify practices, attitudes and business models that impede knowledge flow, relationships, high quality conversations and exchanges. Identify and question the assumptions underlying them. Posit alternative assumptions. Lessen or remove any of these impeding factors.