Informal Networks LO7543

Brock Vodden (
Wed, 22 May 1996 10:15:53 -0400

Replying to LO7519 --


At 08:38 AM 5/20/96 -0700, you wrote:
> I have an intriguing thought I would like your help with. While recently
> attending a conference, where we discussed various organizational approaches
> in business, the topic of informal work networks was raised. Informal
> networks are those working relations that are built from experiences
> employees gain over time. They learn who to depend on for information and
> direction, for ideas, for support, and for contrary oppositions. These
> networks are not foreign to any of us. We use them almost daily and often
> use them instead of our current "team" environment. Some organizations have
> mapped out these networks and concluded that they should be supported,
> perhaps formally.
> That is what caught my attention. Could these informal networks be made the
> formal organizations? Instead of taking the traditional approach of
> assembling a team comprising representatives from the various constituencies
> involved with the project, could you formalize an existing network?

An intriguing thought, indeed.

A short while ago, I would have replied quickly that the informal networks
will continue to operate and do not require support. I would have
suggested that the very act of "official recognition" might destroy some
of these networks.

I have been forced to re-think the proposition, largely because of the
fallout from the down-sizing mania that has gripped North America. One of
the effects of down-sizing is the destruction of informal networks, due
to, I suppose, management either not knowing they existed or not
appreciating the role they were playing in the organization.

I still have mixed feelings about taking this step. I think of some of the
informal roles that I have played in organizations throughout my career,
and wonder if part of the reason for their effectiveness was the fact that
they were not part of a formal structure.

In two such instances, I was a member of senior management, but was
approached on a regular basis by individuals from all levels of the
organization (from my own division as well as others) for assistance with
matters ranging from specific technical matters related to projects to
resolution of employee-manager and other inter-personal conflicts
(approaches came from both sides). Many of these contacts had nothing to
do with my official position. Some of the reasons people gave for coming
to me (besides my particular knowledge and expertise) included these:

* they knew that I would treat their concerns seriously and objectively
* they knew that I would keep their concerns confidential
* they felt that I was a good listener
* I had shown respect for their competencies by seeking their advice in
matters where they obviously more competent than I
* they did not want someone to tell them what to do, but rather someone to
help them think through the matter and come to their own conclusion.

I am fairly certain that some of these individuals might have seen me as
less approachable if this role had been more formalized. Formalization
might have affected the openness of some when I approached them for

I don't know how significant these contrary feelings are, but offer them
for consideration.

BTW, I recall reading some research from the 1960's on informal leaders in
organizations. In many cases, no one was consciously aware of who were
those informal leaders (not even the leaders themselves) until researchers
investigated and discovered who was performing what leadership function.
One quiet, unassuming individual who wasn't even near the top of the org
chart, they discovered to be the person whose opinions most strongly
influenced the corporation's priorities.

Brock Vodden


Brock Vodden Vodden Consulting Business Process Improvement "Where People and Systems Meet"

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