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The Value of Improving Social Networks for Collaboration

January 11, 2017

The Value of Improving Social Networks for Collaboration

Collaboration isn't a magic pill. Just because employees engage in collaborative behaviors doesn't mean they, or the company, are reaping the benefits. Who is collaborating and the size of their collaboration networks matter. Research shows that anywhere between 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations are coming from a mere 3% to 5% of employees. That's a lot of value-add collaboration left untapped.

These under-productive collaborations occur when employees confine their collaboration to their formal teams. The org chart has its purpose, but it can also obscure a company's most productive and creative pathways. A recent Harvard Business Review article shared the results of research conducted by TINYpulse done to identify and understand influential employees. In their research, they found that high and low performers in the sales and marketing teams spent roughly the same amount of time collaborating. But they weren't collaborating with the same kinds of people.

First, the high performers spent more of that time collaborating internally, rather than externally. Their internal networks were almost 50% larger than the low performers' internal networks. Last, the high performers spent 34% more time collaborating with internal employees outside their own team — in particular the product and engineering groups.

Wow! The natural assumption would be that the best sales performers are working their clients and prospects — all external collaborations —  to reach those top numbers. Instead, what made the top performers effective was understanding where to find value internally and having the social and collaboration skills to leverage it.

The lesson here? We need to break collaboration out of the silos that have routinely restrained data and content. Don't let the org chart or project team list hold you back. Employees need to be empowered to build far-reaching internal social networks and use them.

Extending and Replicating the Success of Informal Social Networks

Every company has informal social networks. These networks can be highly productive, under-performing, or downright detrimental. Identifying your social networks will help you extend and replicate the behaviors of the most effective collaborations to the under-performing ones, and to neutralize the ones that undermine your teams' and organization's efforts.

When you identify the successful collaboration networks, you can identify what they're doing differently and then intentionally extend those best practices to building and improving other social networks. Some things to look for:

  • What's their decision-making process?
  • Where do they look for insight and feedback?
  • Do they share expertise more readily?
  • Are they better at holding each other accountable?
  • Have they organically devised a more efficient way to utilize organizational resources?

The McKinsey Quarterly shares a couple of great examples of companies that identified their most valuable collaborations. These firms found a way to extend them to realize even greater benefits. An engineering company discovered that a small group of its construction managers and engineers were exceptionally good at using collaboration to share expertise. The company took this insight and deliberately strengthened the networks among its specialists across groups to expand its knowledge-sharing. The result was increasing annual revenue from $80 million to $275 million in one year.

In another case, a nonprofit used what it learned about its internal networks to both replicate best behaviors and neutralize a network that was undermining progress. The most interesting aspect of this is that it was the same internal social network that was both most productive and undermining the organization's overall effectiveness.

Think about it. Social networks are theoretically limitless. But human nature keeps us focused on the social networks we have. There's always an "in-crowd." While that social network can be highly productive, it also holds organizations back when it becomes too insular.

At the nonprofit, they found that their highest-performing fundraisers had strong external networks with donors, but they also had the strongest relationships within the fundraising group.  The result was the newcomers to the fundraising team couldn't break into this network of seasoned, well-oiled senior fundraisers. The newbies would leave so the junior fundraiser turnover was high. Once this social network weakness was identified, the nonprofit instituted a program of formally building new fundraisers' internal and external networks. It broke down the divide between the senior and junior fundraiser silos.

Social Networks are Another Form of Organizational Tacit Knowledge

Role specialization is increasing the complexity of our work. Specialization demands effective collaboration, much of which will develop outside of policy manuals and org charts. A company's most effective social networks are just another aspect to its store of tacit knowledge.

Just as with extracting value from substantive tacit knowledge, it requires deliberate effort to uncover the pathways through which tacit knowledge flows – an organization's social networks. Social networks that cross departments and hierarchies extend the power of collaboration more widely and effectively throughout the organization.