I was reading an article out of The McKinsey Quarterly entitled Harnessing the power of informal employee networks by Lowell Bryan. The article starts off discussing the importance of the informal network for communicating and passing on ideas. In fact Bryan and his coauthors state “As we studied these social and informal networks, we made a surprising discovery: how much information and knowledge flows through them and how little through official hierarchical and matrix structures.” So they suggest that companies need to take advantage of the strength of these informal networks by making them formal! They even go on to suggest this formalization include a leader of the group, evaluation of the leader, required membership by employees who fall into the practice area or job grouping around which the formal informal network has been formed.
Now I am not a McKinsey consultant and I don’t work with very large organizations, but it seems to me that by formalizing informal networks you run the risk of making them as unappealing and unworkable as the heirarchical or matrix organizations they initially compared them to. To me informal networks are formed around people with like interests who are attracted to each other not only for the interest but a personal attraction or likability factor. Requiring an employee to participate in a network established around a practice or field will work no better than a heirarchy if there is no personal attraction to the group. I have participated in a number of networks that were established around a common interest that ended up falling apart or splintering into groups who wanted to share with each other.
Now I am not knocking Bryan, in fact he has a new book out, Mobilizing Minds: Creating Wealth from Talent in the 21st Century Organization, that I have already ordered. Formalizing informal networks may work in very large organizations, but I think it is doomed in smaller organizations.
People in HR and Management should recognize the power of these informal networks. They can work for both good and bad. One of the points Bryan et al. made was that informal networks fall apart if the “lynchpin” person leaves the network, hence the need to formalize. But knowing just that fact can serve the HR person very well in making use of, or in stopping, an informal network.