Inspiration from space to find better ways to tap into the informal organization
The discovery of the century was announced last week. Gravitational waves exist and can be made visible. “A new window to look into the universe”, according to the scientists. “We have been able to see but were deaf and now we can hear as well”, one of them stated. Scientists have been searching for more than half a century for gravitational waves, ripples in space-time first predicted by Albert Einstein.
Listening to the enthusiastic scientists involved, I could not help asking myself what is invisible in organizations and yet everybody knows it exists. For me this is the informal organization: people’s relationships and networks beyond the formal structure, reporting lines and meetings (read Goldsmith and Katzenbach). In the informal organization (the “grapevine”) the issues are not captured in the formalized ways of working, and it is sometimes difficult to create an open and two-way communication. Very much like with gravitational waves, some parts of the informal organization seem to have even more gravity than others, a kind of black holes, in which the formal organization gets sucked in.
The formal organization is important, but for leaders tapping into the informal organization is critical, to understand what is really going on inside the organization.
The search for new windows to look into the informal organization
Very much like the astronomers, business and HR leaders have been searching for more than half a century for new windows to look into the informal organization. Various tools and methods have been developed. For example, surveys such as: engagement surveys, pulse surveys and cultural surveys. All very useful tools and methods, but they mainly measure what is formally going on.
Another method used is to change the way of internal communications by introducing large Town Hall meetings or leader video broadcasts directed to all employees. If well done these can be effective, but mainly for one-way and often top-down communication.
In literature and practice it is shown that two-way informal communication between leader and employees remains the best way for a leader to get a better understanding of what is really going on.
For leaders responsible for large organizations across multiple countries this is challenging. Face-to-face communication is possible in smaller local for local businesses but less so in large international organizations. As a leader, depending on the formal organizational set-up to get a better insight in what is going on informally, is not an alternative. Not only because of the clay layers, but also because it is like looking at the dashboard of your car to get a better understanding of how the engine works.
Can we expect a big-bang breakthrough?
This is where unfortunately the analogy with gravitational waves slightly fails. There is no big-bang breakthrough in this area expected on the short term.
However “gravitational waves of the organization” or the informal organization, continues to be a domain in which a big impact can be made by researchers and HR practitioners. Simply because of the importance for business success and the struggle most leaders still have in this area.
The good news is that a lot of progress has been made in some organizations to support informal two-way communication as the best way to tap into the informal organization.
Tools and examples to support virtual two-way informal communication
For large scale cross border environments there are very good enabling technologies to support virtual informal two-way communication.
- Classic video conferencing is excellent, but only for a few people at the time and it is restricted to location. More suitable is for instance the Webex environment from Cisco. This technology allows you to have interactive two-way sessions with small and large teams across the globe at any time at any place with your laptop. In addition to the audio and video, advanced functionality is available: sharing visuals and notes, managing the meeting and one-to-one chats during the meeting. I used similar technology also to get multiple teams across the globe to connect real-time to share and discuss best practices. Powerful to create also sense of belonging for teams across the globe. The technology already exists for some time, but is improved on a continuous basis.
- If you don’t want to wait for internal communications and IT to install such a platform, Skype is a good low cost alternative for multi purpose virtual communication, especially combined with other tools like screen sharing such as JoinMe. Skype recently added new functionality for real-time translations.
- In addition leveraging social media tools similar to Facebook as an internal social media platform, is extremely powerful. An example of such a platform is Yammer, that is used by Siemens and others. Many of the available platforms have excellent functionality for real-time interaction and often people can create their own groups around a theme or project.
I once used an internal social media platform to create a group of all people involved in a major HR transformation. In this way everybody can directly communicate with each other, the leader, the project team and so on. No constrains of time or distance or size of the group. I experienced this way of working as extremely effective. People go directly to whom they believe can help. They start helping each other and table issues and improvement suggestions. It also reduces email traffic considerably. For the project team and the business leader the responses and virtual discussions offer valuable information that can be leveraged for various improvements. The people involved are truly engaged and become often champions for the transition/project. Discussions and responses of employees on internal social media also seem to be more informal.
Similar tools are also used for identifying opinions of employees on certain subjects. Or to have leader “virtual coffee corners” conversations. In fact, the possibilities to tap into what was not heard before, are numerous. Think about improving business performance and innovation.
Using these tools offer new windows into the informal organizations and create an interesting blend of the formal and informal organization.
HR practitioners have a huge opportunity to add high impact value in this domain by initiating and guiding leaders to the right applications.
Of course the tools are just a means and leadership prerequisites like integrity, trust and respect remain important ingredients to be successful in realizing informal two-way communication between leaders and employees.
So maybe no breakthrough, but for sure a major leap forward. No doubt there is more to come in this domain.