Informal Networks LO7560

Jessica Lipnack (
Wed, 22 May 1996 21:54:03 -0500

Replying to LO7519 --

David Reed brings up the issue of whether and how informal networks can
become formal parts of the organization. In my experience, this happens
all the time but it takes work.

There is quite a prejudice against networks being regarded as "real"
organizations like their predecessors, hierarchy and bureaucracy. Many see
networks as good for informal processes but not the sort of organization
that gets anything concrete done.

We (Jeff Stamps and I) have spent the past 17 years researching and
writing about the ways in which networks can become "organizations for the
21st century" and have documented several thousand examples in our books.
I can give specific refs if interested or you can see excerpts, etc. on
our web page (address below).

Briefly, in regard to your questions:

?> During the inception of a project, when a team is brought together,
would it be best for them to do an analysis of their network and document
it as the project team?

Yes, but, important caveat here, as the network takes on more complex
work, its membership changes. The first step is clarifying purpose, which
can also be called vision, mission, and goals. We use the umbrella term to
encompass this cascade of refinement of the question "Why are we working

?> Should this team then form the formal organization for that project
(virtually if not by name)?

Whoever is needed to do the work is part of the network. When the work is
defined, the network becomes clear and can thereby take on some level of

?> Haven't we been operating this way all along but not accepting that
others, outside the formal organizations, have supplied the critical links
to information and ideas?

Yes, and, no. Most people do use networks to accomplish their work but
there are many examples of the work being done in strict hierarchical and
bureaucratic fashion. But I do agree. Networks are not usually given their
proper credit.

?> What processes are used to formalize such a network?

In a nutshell, the steps that we have observed being used the most
frequently are these:

1. Clarify the purpose (Why are we doing this?)
2. Identify the members (Who is involved?)
3. Establish the links (How are we connected?)
4. Multiply the leaders (Who is responsible for what?)
5. Integrate the levels (How are we connected to the hierarchy
and the "lower-archy"?)

Having gone through these steps, you can then use some pretty
sophisticated modeling tools to come up with clear work plans. We use
TeamFlow, the cross-functional depolyment chart modeling tool that allows
you to neatly represent each of the five steps in the work of a network
listed above.

?> And lastly, are there documented cases of this being used in businesses
today (advantages, disadvantages)?

Many documented successes--from the small business networking miracle that
turned Denmark's economy around in the late 1980s to Eastman Chemical's
extensive use of cross-boundary teams (which we would call networks) to
accomplish all of their work. As for the disadvantages, networks are not
the right organization for every effort. You don't want a network standing
around outside a raging fire trying to come to consensus on which way to
approach the problem. There you want a highly skilled military unit with
someone calling the shots. That is to say: hierarchy is great for fighting
fires but when you need more than one fire station involved, call in the
mutual aid network.

Is this the kind of thing you had in mind, David?


Jessica Lipnack <>
The Networking Institute, Inc., 505 Waltham Street, West Newton, MA 02165 USA
Tel: 617/965-3340 Fax: 617/965-2341 Web page:


-- (Jessica Lipnack)

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