The impact of informal networks
Although we read incessantly that social networks are bringing sharing to the top of the agenda and people closer together, experience doesn’t always bear it out. So it was interesting that when three people at ASK independently stumbled upon the same online magazine article, we presented each other – unprompted – with printouts as ‘something I wondered if you’d seen’. We could just have paid it the lazy digital compliment of the ‘Like’ button, but something prompted us to go the extra mile: we knew each other as individuals who might be particularly interested in the piece (which was, fittingly, about friendship and collaboration being the ‘real engine of creativity and organisation success’). We’re neither a permanent nor a temporary team, but our culture means we chat openly and widely, know each other’s interests and enjoy sparking them.
Much like talent, there’s a common argument that creativity is a natural attribute of a select few but it’s one that needs challenging. Creativity is frequently not the work of eccentrics in attics, but a collaborative, social process where we share ideas, give pointers, make introductions to new information, concepts or other people whose ideas may be interestingly related. Informal networks are more than ‘Like’ buttons or metaphorical watercoolers: workplace friends provide mental springboards, help us explore ideas from new angles, and give us a sense of belonging that runs deeper than aligning ourselves with a strategic vision.
Most of us probably intuitively know that cubicle farm buildings where departments are strictly segregated (except possibly at managerial level) don’t feel like – and often aren’t – hotbeds of creativity, even in the limited sense of ‘problem solving’. (Did Picasso, Miles Davis or Harold Pinter set out to solve something?) So we have tried to address ‘the issue’ with technology; social networks aim to connect the people sat at all those machines to create ‘network value’. But our friends - in the old-fashioned sense - don’t just manage constructive critical feedback better than those in the ‘click here to be one’ sense. Our emotional and social bond encourages the professional one. We give friends better advice or feedback, because we understand them so much more fully than we understand ‘colleagues’.
Can reliance on technology harm productivity?
Indeed, relying too heavily on technology may be counter-productive. The level of investment in KM implies organisations value knowledge, but IT has also impacted on the ‘value’ of people. Unwilling or unable to offer a job for life, organisations understandably try to capture as much ‘knowledge’ as possible before people ‘move on’, but there’s a critical difference between crunching data and interpreting it: we are not algorithms. Despite the financial sectors best efforts, we are more complex that any derivatives equation. And arguably more reliable. Many specialist roles are now performed not merely by someone cheaper on another continent, but by cheap or even free software. But when did your accounts package last share a fascinating possibility with you over coffee?
Prioritising employee collaboration
So why don’t organisations focus more effort on allowing or encouraging friendships? It requires a non-censoring cultural mindset: like IBM’s 15% rule, it means allowing people time and investing trust in them too. But a culture that encourages employees to reveal rather than conceal interests, skills and passion must be a step in the right direction? Many organisations see collaboration outside an employee’s native silo as time-wasting, as they see managing as a verb concerned with controlling rather than facilitating or encouraging and ideas as things to be taken upwards (where they can be trodden back down again) rather than sideways to people who might offer insight, guidance, feedback or even encouragement. If we bugged offices to record the occasions on which managers a) forbid, ban, discourage, prevent or curtail activity, and b) encourage or allow it – how might the percentages of ‘Don’t do that’ vs. ‘Feel free to’ that most employees hear in a typical day compare?
Have we reached the point in human history where managers and HR functions can function in 17 languages and not say ‘Yes’ in any of them? ‘Friendships’ and ‘high-performing teams’ may have a chicken and egg relationship, but they are largely inseparable. The interpersonal nature of creative collaboration also makes it an area where HR cannot deliver hands-on results: it’s down to those at the interpersonal coalface. Organisations need to balance creativity and structure in ways that lend themselves to musical analogies: orchestra vs. jazz band. Structure’s role is to provide direction, a degree of focus and a guard against chaos: an hour’s free jazz is enough. But an orchestra gives only a performance – however skilful – of something from a repertoire of old scores. And sometimes, we all need to change our tune.