Monday, 27 August 2007

Social networks inside (and the structured/un-structured dilemma)

I have been answering some LinkedIn questions and I thought I would post one of them. The question was about the use of internal (to the firm) Linked-In type of tools and, by default, the structure/unstructured sides of the organizations. This are my comments:

This is at the core of my work as organizational consultant. I have developed the theme of structured/non structured collaboration –within a given organization – in my book Viral Change™ Although the book ( as my own work) is geared towards change in organizations, the basis for change lies on ‘what kind of model of organization’ one has in mind. The traditional top-down and ‘organization-chart structure’ ‘requires’ the cascade-down conventional change management programme designed by academics and sold by consultants where everything is linear and sequential. I call it ‘Tsunami approach’. The understanding of the organization as a network-base biological organism will not cope with that approach. Viral Change™ occurs when a small set of behaviours, is modelled and spread by a small number of people through their networks of influence (‘Butterfly approach’) creating tipping points where new routines become visible and established. It is infection versus cascade down ‘rational appeal to all’.

There are some organizations that have been designed from the decentralised, network based angle and, as such, there will be examples in their own rights. The best compilation I have seen of such examples is in the book The Starfish and the spider. There is a website Visa is featured ( as pointed out by Andrew in your answers). BUT, the point I am making in my book (and work) is that ALL organizations have a component of network-based, un-structured communication and collaboration, largely (but not totally) invisible and traditionally ignored by management (‘if we don’t see it we can’t manage it’) There is always a tension between the structured and unstructured sides of the organization and the results of that tension dictates many aspects of their effectiveness.

Looking at examples such as Google (which contains by the way a great percentage of ‘structured’) or Selmer’s only, may be misleading since the average corporation (my clients!) will never go that way! My work focuses on trying to make the leadership of the organization understand the hidden networks first and then embrace their invisibility. Viral Change is just one application of that change of mindset.

Finally, the use of intra-firm social networks tools for the hidden, largely invisible side of the firm is almost unknown in large corporations. Those tools would replace a great deal of email, traffic. Extra problem is that if management hijacks them they will be effectively ‘structuring’ an un-structured collaboration, which will write its death certificate. I could go for hours here (!) but I hope my comments help

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