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Being a collaborator

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How do things get done in organisations?  For me the most precise and insightful answer comes from Professor Ron Burt in his highly acclaimed book on Social Capital:

“Accountability flows through the formal organisation of authority relations. All else flows through the informal relations – advice, coordination, cooperation, friendship, gossip, knowledge and trust. Formal relations are about who is to blame. Informal relations are about who gets it done.”

In today’s matrix organisations, with multiple reporting lines and increased levels of outsourcing, the internal and external organisational boundaries are blurred to an extent where no one has complete authority over the entire system. The importance of the informal network and the ability to manage sideways has therefore never been more prominent than when you want to get things done.

What is an informal network? How does it work?

An informal network is a social structure made up of many pairs of individuals who are connected through some sort of relationship. It is not an organizational structure and it has no formal authority. What’s both fascinating, and somewhat scary, is that you can’t manage an informal network. It is there whether you like it or not.

Executive Director of the Hargraves Institute Allan Ryan points out that in chemistry, a catalyst is a chemical that accelerates a reaction, but is not consumed by the reaction. Ryan says that in innovative organisations, a catalyst accelerates the progress of a team or an individual innovator without being consumed or owning the idea or project.

The key ingredient the Catalysts have is their informal network. It is the Catalyst’s connectedness that accelerates the idea by their ability to draw on their network to get things done. This is where the idea is turned into implementation.

Imagine arriving in a city with no map and no friends to call on. All you have is an instruction to get from A to B as fast as possible. You’re undoubtedly going to making less than ideal decisions as you lack the insight and knowledge the locals have. But what if you checked in at a hotel and asked the concierge for assistance?

Think of a Catalyst as an experienced concierge who can accelerate your journey. His or her contacts and experience about what works and what doesn’t will be instrumental in helping you get your idea implemented. Knowing a few concierges will yield a much higher return in shorter timeframe than if you try to get to know the entire city.

The secret to success is your ability to activate these networks that already exist.

How to identify the networks that exist?

At the organisational level the most efficient way is simply to ask, “Whom do you draw on to get work done?”. The subtle, but critically important, distinction is that your network is made up of people nominating each other. It is not a matter of self-reporting.

When we aggregate all the individual responses and display these linkages it becomes very apparent whom the real Catalysts are that you need to get your idea up and running. In effect we have given you the names of all the concierges in the city.  Not only have you got the names, but you can also see the reach of their network. Just like a concierge doesn’t know ALL of the restaurants in a city, a Catalyst’s network has limits, so you may need to draw on a combination of them.

Hargraves and Optimice are offering the first 10 member organisations that sign up to a free Innovation Catalyst Network survey with up to 150 respondents. Contact Hargraves for more information.

But what do you do if you aren’t able to ask people? What can you do yourself and with your team of innovators? We’ll explore that in the next blog post.

Cai Kjaer, Partner in Optimice, is an expert in mapping social networks for business performance and innovation.
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Guest Thursday, 23 October 2014