The Covid-19 pandemic has incentivized organizations everywhere to embrace the long-praised future of remote work. But as employees are logging to video meetings and testing out new collaboration platforms, a massive date stamp has been slapped on our traditional understanding of organizations as chains of command, corner offices and formal reporting relationships. This has highlighted a long-standing debate among organizational scholars about best ways to promote the flow of knowledge in and around organizations. The formalist approach has been primarily concerned with the optimizing that flow along formally defined lines, mostly the notorious chain of command.
Traditional vs. Modern organizational theory
My experience is that we have to start with the leaders, there are the ones that have built the silos, and often thrive by sitting on top and directing. Perhaps they think the results come automatically when they have ordered a digitization project, and perhaps it is the leadership that needs transformation.
[QuoteText]Not many leaders have understood how to view their organization in a way that takes both formal and informal relationships into account. But when you show them, they understand immediately, because the formal hierarchy you learned about in business school is just one kind of a network. And one, we might add, that is being seriously challenged given the development of more distributed organizations and virtual workers.
The striking difference between the organization as a hierarchy and as a network is apparent at first glance.
Building shorter paths between us
In an article that will be published in the Journal of Organization Design later this year, Hunter, alongside JOIN21 co-founders Jan Taug, PhD, and Henrik Bentzen, compare the impacts of formal organizational structure and informal connections on aspects such as expertise and information-sharing. The study employs a measure called «command distance» - which is the distance between two actors in a chain of command. This measure shows how formal and informal relations influence each other. Starling and colleagues argue that the formal structure affords only one, often very long, path between any pair of actors. Once informal relationships come into picture, they result in easier and faster flow of knowledge and information, shortening the paths between people. Starling, Taug and Bentzen also found that the longer the distance between two actors in the chain of command, the less likely it is for them to form any kind social or informal connection. «Our key finding is that the further apart two people are in the formal structure, meaning the more steps there are between them, the less likely they will connect informally. And these could very well be the people who should be connecting in order to create innovation and share expertise», Starling says.
The study saw that this tendency was true for networks formed by information-sharing and expertise-seeking, both between people and also on collaboration platforms like Workplace by Facebook. However, since separation in the formal structure mattered less when it came to forging connections on platforms, in the Workplace case this tendency was weaker.
What you want: broad networks
What are the key implications of these findings? The study found, probably not that surprisingly, that the two people most likely to connect in an organization are a subordinate and his or her boss. The second most likely to connect are two people who report to the same boss. “Such ‘local’ connections are not a problem in themselves. But they can easily get in the way of valuable knowledge-flow to people further away in the formal structure”, Hunter explains. The key question, then, is how to facilitate and motivate more remote connections. «While the paper does not address this question specifically, that is what we do at JOIN21. We analyze the networks, and then recommend to the leadership interventions that will build and facilitate value-added connections», adds Taug. In the light of Covid 19, you might ask - how does the physical separation of working remotely affect the formal separation? Hunter says that it will likely have a cumulative or multiplicative effect: “So people who are both physically separated and widely separated in the formal structure are even less likely to connect. If anything, this highlights the need for the interventions of the kind JOIN21 offers”, Hunter says. At a very minimum, leaders will be more effective if they understand their organizations as networks - what networks are, what network roles are and what they can do for culture, innovation, productivity and other important aspects of work.