How to Harness Your Company’s “Informal Networks”
The “formal network” in any company is usually found by looking at the org chart. Where people fit in the reporting structure will tell you a lot about who should regularly communicate with whom about goals, strategies, products, and projects. "Informal networks," on the other hand, are comprised of personal relationships that pop up through employees’ day-to-day interactions at work. It can start as simply as a visit with an Accounting representative while submitting an expense report to asking the Receptionist where to find the best sushi restaurant for lunch.
Informal networks represent how your workers come to find each other as resources – as people who are trustworthy, who can offer good advice, and who are available for day-to-day talk about work. Your workers will often use these relationships, cutting across functions and divisions, to accomplish tasks more quickly than simply following the protocol of the “formal” reporting structure. Through informal networks, companies are better suited to jump start stalled initiatives and help workers meet tough deadlines.
Business leaders should view their company’s informal networks as being integral to accomplishing work during turbulent economic periods or organizational upheaval. However, there are pitfalls. Often informal networks are based on personal relationships and will need personal attention to thrive. Others can degrade into “cliques” that leave out other, valuable workers in the process.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your company’s informal networks and strengthen the overall communication in your company:
- While e-mail and mobile communications have made it easy for people to communicate from anywhere, face-to-face gatherings are still key to informal networks. These networks have a personal dimension, so incorporate more personal activities into the work week.
For example, CIE’s Information Technology (CIE-IT) group has Friday morning “Taco Talks” in which team members enjoy breakfast tacos over informal work discussions. Taco Talks greatly improved communication within CIE-IT largely because team members more actively share information while socializing together. The sense of community and camaraderie has been so positive that CIE-IT recently started to invite members from across CIE to join Taco Talks. By including these colleagues, the CIE-IT team can better understand the missions and goals of the division and, therefore, better serve their needs.
- Make sure the informal network doesn’t turn into a clique. If an informal network becomes an exclusive club, it can build barriers to effective teamwork. You may try to take aside an informal network’s “leader” and encourage him or her to engage with other, “outside” team members. Make the informal networks part of the solution. As an assignment, get them to tackle the problem of reducing cliques at your company.
- Lookout for one person being too integral to the success of an informal network. A single person is often a connector from the network to the rest of the company. These individuals can have considerable power and perhaps too much control. Address this problem by consciously engaging, as a manager, with other members of an informal network. Make sure they are empowered to act in the absence of their network’s “leader.”
CIE offers a number of workplace communication classes and workshops. Research upcoming offerings or register for classes online.