Organizational network analysis, using surveys and email analytics to map the informal channels of communication across a company, reveals how unevenly the ‘collaboration load’ tends to be spread across individuals.
On the one hand this means a lot of wasted talent – according to extensive research by network expert and professor of Global Business at Babson College, “for a given area of expertise, only 5% to 15% of available experts are heavily sought out by others.” Those that are under-used can include up to 20% of the high performers of the global organization, and many newcomers specifically hired for their expertise and skills that often get stuck on the edge of the network for a number of years.
The other side of the story is that a small quantity of people become super-collaborators – but can soon hit collaboration overload where they are simply involved in too many issues to be effective. The level of their involvement tends to spiral upwards as they become known as ‘the person to go to’ – but ironically also increases the danger of them leaving.
Prof Cross and colleagues have identified a peak band of ‘incoming ties’ – people who consider your collaboration as critical to them getting work done – that sits between being too isolated and collaboration overload (see diagram).
The exact numbers of peak incoming ties will depend on the work being done, the strength of the relationships in the network, the geographical and time-zone spread, amongst other factors. However one stat seems to hold true – that the problems with collaboration overload really kick in when more than a quarter of an individual’s network can’t get enough of their time.
This balance is important to get right, as informal networks are the conduit through which work gets done in todays’ matrix and global organizations. People with diverse, far-reaching and free flowing networks that frequently engage their network to help them solve problems tend to come up with more creative and effective solutions.
Think about your own network and who relies on you to get their work done. Are you in the peak zone, causing bottlenecks, or indeed too isolated?
If you are inadvertently causing bottlenecks, or people struggle to get meaningful time with you, which other similar but under-used experts could you draft in to help? Where could you make better use of technology – for example by creating Q&A threads on online community boards as questions arise, and refer people in search of help in the future to these? Handing over more autonomy for making decisions to some of those that ask for your input will also help.
Conversely, make sure you avoid adding to existing bottlenecks where approvals and decisions often get stuck. Is there another ‘expert’ in the team you could turn to instead who is not so overloaded and can provide a more timely response? Think of effective ways of accomplishing your goals through your network, whilst respecting others’ time.
If you feel too isolated, or that the connections you do have do not generate much mutual value, where might it pay you reach out and offer help? Or simply set up an exploratory chat? See our recent blog on the most effective ways to grow a successful network.
As Prof Cross explains, “you are not looking to just promote connectivity but rather to align the network with strategic imperatives. In many cases this means looking to remove unproductive collaborations before stimulating additional connectivity.”