Emmanuel on Network Analysis - Handle with Care
I spent some time over Christmas thinking about some of the ideas shared in this community during our first few months of discussion last year. One area which I’ve still not completely got my head around, and therefore I’d value your help in addressing, is about formalising informal organisation.
Emmanuel Gobillot wrote a great post on this last year and I completely agree with most of what he says. It’s quite possible and therefore a fairly common experience to lose the things which are most valuable in a real, informal or social network by trying to impose ownership, formal control, managerial approaches or economic incentives upon it, and ie to formalise it. And I therefore believe we need to be really careful about doing that.
I also still remember some comments from Jay Cross way back when calling the idea of formalising the informal abominable as it involves messing with something that shouldn't be messed with.
At the Same Time - The Role of Organisational Networks
At the same time, I strongly believe that we can make more use of networks (distributed networks, not centralised ones like functions or decentralised ones like projects) within our organisations. I wrote about these quite extensively in The Social Organization and in fact, I’ve talked about and promoted network based organisations as part of organisation design for about 20 years now. And whilst there’s still only a few case studies of organisations using networks as their main, vs an additional or supporting, type of structure (and although I’ve recommended using networks to clients I haven’t yet had one adopt them), their use and impact is increasing.
The other thing that got me thinking about this last year was MichaelArena's book. I love Michael’s thinking, the research, the model, the broad range of examples, etc. But I also wonder whether it confronts GM’s problems and opportunities at a high enough level too, as Michael suggests that one benefit of adaptive space is that it overcomes the stiflingly effects of formal structure. For me, if that’s the problem then we really need to change the formal structure to make it refreshing rather than stifling! Perhaps by actually incorporating networks within the formal organisation?
Is the Problem the Terms ‘Formal’ and ‘Informal’?
So, how can both of the above be true? Ie that we should be careful about formalising networks, and that we should also use formal networks?
And I do still feel slightly uncomfortable about suggesting that we should use formal networks. That’s partly because whilst the most common approach is still to treat formal and inform the same - again, I agree with Emmanuel - I think the prevailing paradigm amongst the more informed is to keep formal and informal distinct and separate. So I do feel I’m swimming against the tide.
In The Social Organization, I didn’t write about formal or informal that much. I did write about work done by people, and people doing work - which I think are more or less the same things as formal and informal.
And I have wondered whether the terms 'formal' and 'informal' may be part of the problem. Emmanuel believes networks differ from formal structures, whereas I think they can be formal structure. But Emmanuel suggests that there is nothing wrong with optimising the network to make it more efficient and effective - which is all I’m trying to do as well really. So are we just using the terms formal and informal in different ways?
In my Connected Commons webinar last year I suggested using ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ for all organisational structures (including networks) depending on whether these are either important or not important, rather than being about the different types of structures themselves. Ie if they’re important we’d be best off seeing them as formal, but if they’re not, we can treat them more informally. We just need to remember to treat formal networks and communities differently to formal functions and projects. However, I’m not sure that suggestion really worked.
But I still think the terms are part of the problem, so I’m going to write about the planned and emergent organisation:
Using Social Motivators vs Economic Incentives
My new attempt to square the circle(ie to be able to protect social networks, and use formal ones) is based on examining the links between the two types of organisation and the variables which support them, which Emmanuel suggests are roles, rules and economic incentives for the planned / formal organisation, and individuals, reciprocity, and social and moral obligation for the emergent / real / informal company.
I think this is a really important point, and we’d don’t use the power of human and more particularly, social drivers anything like enough. In The Social Organization I refer to doing this as developing, or cultivating, the organisational society. However there's a lot of value for their use in individual, ie non social settings, too.
However, as Emmanuel points out, these variables do not fit with each other that well, especially when it comes to economic incentives and social drivers. I agree that there is something special about financial incentives (not in a good way), but I think the point applies more generally to a broad range of management actions. Eg I’m not sure it’d still be covered under behavioural economics but I remember one experiment with school children who were told to spend time doing something they used to do for fun. But as soon as it became mandated, the kids lost interest in it. For adults, we’re not as motivated to do something when we’re told to do it as when we have an idea about doing something for ourselves - and being told to do it reduces the likelihood that we’ll do it anyway. Economic incentives substantially extend the opportunity for unintended consequences, but they’re not the sole cause of them. I’m therefore going to refer to managerial approaches as the slightly larger categorisation which includes economic incentives. In The Social Organization I called these managerial approaches, or something close to them, designing the organisational architecture.
The issue, for me, is that we can’t stop trying to manage or externally incentivise people, or to ensure that they are socially motivated. Eg this article in the FT last week suggests that many organisations are trying to make work more like play. Part of this is emphasising the social rather than the economic nature of employment.
We need to do both. We therefore need to see managerial approaches and the use / encouragement of social drivers as a paradox rather than a dilemma. And this applies to our organisation designs too.
Linking Approaches with Organisation Types
The diagramme below is my attempt to show what I think we need to try to do, in order to square the circle.
We can all see the need to use managerial approaches in the formal organisation and we also understand the opportunity for using human / social approaches in the real organisation. But we can also use basic managerial support for the real organisation.
We just can’t use social approaches to support the planned organisation (?).
I think the three opportunities look like this:
The model suggests that there is a 'formal' (planned / managerial) space, and an 'informal' (emergent / social) one too. but that there's also a space which requires some managerial actions (but not economic ones) to develop the 'real' organisation, ie the way that people act in social networks to make sense of things. And also that we need to be able to do all three things, despite the inherent conflicts between the first two.
Note that I’ve moved the organisation types from the x axis in my webinar slide to the y axis so that the resulting matrix resembles the Cynefin framework with the shifts from planned to emergent (bottom to top right) and managerial to social (top right to left) mirroring that model’s shifts from simple to complicated and complex. That’s not quite right either but is close to what I mean (although of course any mechanistic representation like this will be closer to the planned than the emergent organisation).
This is what Adaptive Space suggests as well, doesn’t it? Ie this involves having the right broker, connector and other roles (planned / managerial) which create new organisational networks that can be supported by organisation development type approaches - GM’s co-labs etc (emergent / managerial) and other people management activities, eg recruiting and developing more energisers and challengers required to work the networks (emergent / social).
By the way, I think all these three opportunities can be supported and enabled through the use of organisation network analysis - this doesn’t need to be restricted to the real / informal / emergent organisation (although I’d argue that ONA is, itself, a managerial approach and that analysis in my ‘indirect development' box would really require the network to analyse itself, probably in a more subjective and qualitative way).
Does This Work?
As I said, I support and appreciate Emmanuel’s post, and am not trying to criticise it. I’m just trying to understand and articulate why I feel there is a bigger or slightly different picture too. So, does this make sense?, and is it a useful build on informal / formal?
No, really... I’m still not sure I’ve got this right or articulated it correctly and would love to have some challenge or validation. This is at least part of what this community is for - to help us all get a better understanding of this still relatively new and complex field.
Also, I realise that the above points may be a bit academic for practitioners here, and not very well thought through or evidenced for the academics, also also rather long winded for both groups, but my hope is that it, and / or your comments, may still help us think about how we can analyse and develop networks more effectively...
I’m haven’t really got my thoughts sorted out… they seem to keep wandering down side paths or going in circles, but I’ll throw it out here in case it sparks something for someone else…
As far as terminology, I think informal vs formal can easily cause confusion, so in my own work I tend to refer to these two elements as the organization’s network (the emergent “informal” networks through which people work to make sense of things) and the prescribed organization chart (which can be generally understood as a visual representation of the prescribed structure, roles, processes of the organization). However, I tend to think of this “planned organization,” not as a network itself, but rather a framework on which networks can emerge—the scaffolding that either supports or undermines the informal networks.
I think I would argue that the “informal” emergent networks—the network people use to accomplish their work—cannot be formalized. It might even be impossible. By their nature informal networks are self-organizing—the product of individual behavior, adapting and responding to internal and external drivers. In other words, something that is not managed directly, but rather indirectly, by managing the drivers and frameworks which contribute to its emergence? Even if the structure of the informal network were converted to a “formal” structure, wouldn’t new informal networks would emerge to replace those that had been formalized?
I think that perhaps the question is not so much one of formalizing the informal, but rather a question of how these two parts both respond and drive the other, and whether they can be managed in harmony with one another.
Possibly “optimizing networks” is not the process of formalizing the informal networks, but of managing the planned framework to drive emergent network response?... maybe formal and informal don’t describe the resulting structures as much as they do the applied drivers? Informal Drivers (social) X Formal Drivers (managerial) and Emergent Organization X Planned Organization?