As you determine how to build a networking culture within your organization, it’s important to understand how networking actually works. One of the most knowledgeable people on organizational networking and—how this supports innovation—is Rob Cross, a professor in the management department of University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce.
Rob Cross has identified three networking types that you should pay attention to within your organization. They are:
- Central connectors
- Peripheral people.
Central connectors are those people with the highest number of direct connections. They can be formal leaders—or political players trying to leaders—whom everyone seeks out either because they make things happen or because they have made themselves bottlenecks. The latter can become a major issue with regards to innovation, where you often need a dynamic flow. Experts are also a type of central connectors who are sometimes overused as everyone goes to them with questions. Sometimes experts must be protected.
Brokers are high-leverage employees who connect people across boundaries, such as functions, skills, geography, hierarchy, ethnicity, and gender. These people have the leverage ability to drive change, diffusion, or innovation, and they can also act in key liaison or cross-process roles.
According to Cross, brokers often sit in “tipping point” positions and so diffuse information faster than leaders and central connectors. Even in a small group, brokers are the most effective means to diffuse information. Brokers have ground-level credibility and acknowledged expertise in the eyes of their peers. They are much more likely to be sought out and listened to than a designated expert or leader who might not be influential in the network. Brokers bridge diverse perspectives and understand cultural norms and practices of different groups in ways that those familiar and comfortable within their own group often cannot.
Peripheral people could be new people, experts, sales people, poor performers, or cultural misfits. They sit on the edge of the network, and Cross has learned that typically 30 to 40 percent of peripheral people would like to get better connected but have run into obstacles. They are a resource of untapped expertise but are substantial flight risks. Peripheral people are particularly in need of education about how to network; they will also need more encouragement than others to participate in networking.
Knowing these different types should prompt you to ask questions about what networking types you have within your organization and what type of networking approaches might work best. For example, if your company has a lot of peripheral people, you’ll need to devote more time to training in networking skills. Also, as a leader, think about how you can work best with the different types to be able to get the most out of them.
Roadblocks for Corporate Networking
In working with companies that are trying to build a networking culture, here are some of the reasons I’ve identified for why such efforts can fail, or not reach the hoped-for degree of success:
Lack of time and skills
Many of us simply do not have the time or skills to network and build relationships. It is necessary to develop a strategy and initiate projects, but the executives and you as an innovation leader also need to give your people time to acquire networking skills and the time to invest in initiating and maintaining both internal and external relationships.
Lack of focus
A community or a network will only work if it connects people who share a common experience, passion, interest, affiliation, or goal. Your people need to have ways to find and join groups that are right for them and right for your company. In other words, you and those you lead should only network when there is a good reason to do so. Random networking rarely results in anything but wasted time, which devalues networking in people’s minds and makes it harder to encourage them to try it again.
Lack of commitment and structure
The “networking will take care of itself and you do not need to work at it” attitude is not the approach to take toward building what increasingly is a core innovation skill. Building a networking culture requires commitment and structure to support it.
In studying networks across many organizations, Rob Cross and his colleagues have identified three other common problems that impede networking and collaboration in organizations both large and small:
Does the structure of your company keep apart people who might team up for innovation? The problem could be related to logistics, geography, or bureaucracy. Identify the causes of such impediments and put in place systems to help people work around them. Eliminate silos and encourage cross-functional networking and collaboration.
Do a handful of experts dominate your company’s information and decision-making networks? Are these gatekeepers good judges of new ideas or does their expertise in one area blind them to the potential of new ideas from other areas? Set up wikis and similar tools to encourage information sharing to make sure no one person or one group has a stranglehold on information.
If you’ve outsourced innovation to reduce development time and costs, have you built a strong network with formal lines of communications to make sure you’re always on top of what’s happening with your external partner? Don’t rely on just informal connections between key employees at the companies; this can lead to frustration and unpleasant surprises. It becomes equally important to avoid insularity as you move toward open innovation. Having systems in place that encourage people to build strong relationships with external partners is essential in an open innovation environment.
By Stefan Lindegaard
About the author
Stefan Lindegaard is a Copenhagen-based author, speaker and strategic advisor. His focus on corporate transformation and innovation management based on leadership, the work force and organizational structures has propelled him into being a trusted source of inspiration to many large corporations, government organizations and smaller companies. He believes business today requires an open and global perspective and he has given talks and worked with companies in Europe, North America, South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
In his role as a strategic advisor and coach, Stefan Lindegaard provides external perspectives and practical advice for executives and corporate transformation and innovation teams. He is a widely respected writer and he has written several books including The Open Innovation Revolution published globally. You can follow his work on LinkedIn Pulse.