Building Vibrant Employee Networks

Whom you know helps determine what you know and how your job gets done.

By Rob Cross and Sally Colella Dec 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, December 2004

Put a formal organizational chart in front of almost any employee, from line worker to executive, and he will tell you the chart does not really reflect how work gets done in his department.

In today’s flatter, knowledge-based organizations, networks of informal relationships are often more critical to performance and innovation than those of formal divisions and units. These networks also have a lot to do with personal productivity, learning and career success. Helping employees build vibrant networks can have tremendous payoff for managers in terms of both individual and departmental productivity.

For example, Fannie Mae, a private, shareholder-owned mortgage company based in Washington, D.C., has been using personal network analysis to enhance collaboration. “We want to break down the silos,” says David Flaxman, senior vice president, eSolutions products and services. “By analyzing their personal networks, employees purposefully establish new relationships across the organization. This helps employees to more effectively share information and solve complex problems.”

Typically, employees do not take the initiative to develop or maintain relationships with individuals unless they are in contact with those individuals as part of the flow of doing their work. Many share information with those on their immediate project team but do not reach out to teams in other parts of the organization. Another pattern that emerges is that employees tend to communicate most often with individuals who share an area of expertise similar to their own, be it technical or business, limiting their ability to solve problems.

Network analysis can help improve individual and organizational effectiveness through personal networks. It also can help employees see where learning patterns exist and whether their networks are extending their abilities or preparing them for advancement in an organization.

Analysis in Practice

Employees within one of Fannie Mae’s technology divisions are participating in a new networking initiative that creates cohort groups consisting of roughly 25 participants from different hierarchical levels and departments. During the kickoff sessions for the initiative, each cohort group interacts with an executive sponsor to learn more about the division’s vision.

Part of the path to reaching the vision includes working across departments and divisions. Each member of the group then turns to analyzing his or her personal network and planning the actions he will take to build or renew relationships that will support the individual’s success while moving toward achieving the vision.

The networking in these groups is twofold. First, the cohort groups create new, informal networks of employees that provide insights into the work of different departments during the meetings. Second, network analysis and action planning that happen during the cohort kickoff meeting help each employee take independent action to enrich his or her personal network.

“We are finding employees use the personal network approach to quickly spot patterns in how they develop and maintain the relationships that are most essential to getting their work done,” says Betty Thompson, HR vice president. “Employees develop a clear sense of the actions they can take to make their personal networks more robust.”

Analysis

Prior to attending the kickoff session for the networking initiative, each participant completes an analysis of his personal network. The first step in a personal network analysis is to list the top 15 people he relies on for important information to help him do his job.

The personal network tool then guides each employee to assess the effectiveness of his network by considering how diverse the network is across a range of dimensions including:

  • Formal organization. Do you connect with people from different parts of the organization? It’s natural to spend a lot of time interacting with colleagues in your department; after all, they are the people you probably see the most. But as you move up in the hierarchy, relationships that cross departmental boundaries become increasingly important for learning and decision-making. Building such bridging relationships takes time, however, and you may find that your time constraints increase just as your need for a wider variety of relationships increases. What this means is that relationship building cannot be left to chance—developing connections with people across the organization must become a goal that is then built into your schedule.

    For example, during the Fannie Mae kickoff sessions, people often realized that their personal connections with individuals in different departments had lapsed. A number of people committed to renewing those relationships by calling former colleagues and setting up meetings or lunches.

  • Hierarchical level. Have you built relationships with people from all hierarchical levels? It’s easy and comfortable to get information from those at the same level as you, and such relationships are crucial; these people may be doing work that is similar to yours and can help you brainstorm and provide the specific help and information you need.

    But connections with people from different levels are also crucial. Those above you in the hierarchy can help with making decisions, acquiring resources, developing political awareness and explaining organizational activities that are beyond your purview. Those from lower levels are often the best sources of technical information and expertise. The key here is maintaining a balance so you won’t miss out on what people from all levels can offer.

  • Physical proximity. Are your relationships limited to the people who share your space? The likelihood of collaborating with someone decreases substantially with distance. Just a few feet, let alone floors in a building or even buildings themselves, can take people to the outer edges of many networks. Such network fragmentation is a problem for everyone in the organization, because it means that collaboration is occurring mostly within narrow groups.

    While Fannie Mae employees often transact business with individuals who work at different locations, a number of them recognized that periodic face-to-face meetings may enrich relationships. Some employees decided to attend meetings held in different locations in person, instead of relying on conference call technology.

  • Time known. Do you let people cycle into—and out of—your network? If you have known too many people in your network for too long, you are likely to be hearing things you already know. You also may be—knowingly or unknowingly—turning to these people to confirm your own opinions, not to hear fresh perspectives. As your job changes, it’s good for new people to cycle into your network so that you will be exposed to new ideas.

    But of course if you have no long-term relationships in your network, you won’t have trusted sounding boards or confidants with whom you can discuss personal or sensitive political issues. Some Fannie Mae employees recognized that their network consisted of other employees with similar tenure. Depending on their tenure, they were either missing new ideas or a sense of the organization’s history and evolution. Some longer-term employees committed to making time to get to know new employees.

  • Structured interaction. Do you interact only with people who make it onto your calendar? Look at most managers’ calendars and you’ll see back-to-back meetings from morning until night, day after day. From a learning and decision-making perspective, this may be a warning sign, especially if those meetings are mostly with a static cast of characters who will be able to offer perspectives from only certain parts of the organization. The critical question is whether the people who are built into your schedule are the ones who can give you the information and insights you need. A well-balanced network allows many voices to be heard and leaves room for serendipitous encounters.

    A number of Fannie Mae participants decided to open some time on their calendars to be available for direct reports and colleagues to drop by for unstructured interactions.

  • Primary medium of contact. Do you communicate with people in many different ways? The media used to interact with people can affect what managers learn and the decisions they make. Again, balance is important. Networks that form almost exclusively around unstructured face-to-face encounters might be convenient but might not include people with the most relevant expertise.

    Similarly, e-mail or instant messaging can be very effective in transferring certain kinds of information but might not be the best medium through which to discuss thorny problems or issues that require wide-ranging exploration. This dimension was most helpful for individuals who found that they rely almost exclusively on one medium, such as telephone or e-mail. Some made decisions to try a different approach when their favored medium is not yielding results.

  • Age. Are you collaborating mostly with people close to your age? You may find that you are most comfortable communicating with those who are your age. Such a bias in a network can substantially reduce the ideas you will hear and the perspectives you will learn to appreciate. Simply recognizing a tendency to network with people in a narrow age range is often enough to encourage individuals to reach out to people who are older or younger and who can offer fresh or wise perspectives.

  • Gender. Is there a gender bias in your network? If you’re turning mostly to colleagues who are of the same gender for information, you may be limiting the kind of ideas you’ll come across. Might reaching out more to one sex or the other affect your learning and decision-making?

  • Ethnicity. Is there an ethnicity bias in your network? Some of us are more comfortable reaching out to those of the same ethnicity. This tendency can certainly limit the perspectives we encounter and the information we receive. Think carefully about whether such a bias exists in your network and whether you could learn more at work by interacting with people from various ethnic backgrounds.

Implementation

The next step for the cohort groups will be to reconvene with their executive sponsors quarterly. During these ongoing sessions, employees will continue to receive strategy updates and engage in dialogue with their sponsors. Communication about strategy and implementation will be supported by deepening collaboration channels between cohort members. Executive sponsors will continue to make connections between people who will benefit from working more closely together. Through this initiative, employees will thoughtfully expand their connections with other individuals to create a work environment that is both engaging and productive.

Rob Cross, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of management in the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce. He is also a research fellow with Babson college's Working Knowledge Consortia, where he focuses on social networks and knowledge-intensive work with companies and government agencies. Sally Colella is the practice leader for organization development initiatives across Fannie Mae. In that capacity, she supports business leaders in developing and implementing solutions that enhance the performance of their departments and divisions.

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