Research: How ONA Lets Leaders Lead In The Era Of Remote Work

As the world is learning to work remotely, leaders struggle to lead using traditional chain-of-command organizational theory. In a special issue of the Journal of Organization Design, JOIN21’s founders explain how modern leaders can be more effective when they get to see their organizations as networks.

The Covid-19 pandemic has incentivized organizations everywhere to embrace the long-heralded future of remote work. However, as employees log on to video meetings and test new collaboration platforms, the good old organizational tools of clear chains of command, corner offices and formal reporting relationships have come under siege.

A long-standing debate among organizational scholars about how best to promote the flow of knowledge in and around organizations has bubbled to the surface. In a recent issue of the Journal of Organizational Design, JOIN21 founders Starling Hunter, Jan Taug and Henrik Bentzen explain why organizational network analysis is becoming the tool of choice for future-oriented leaders.


Traditional versus modern organizational theory  

The formalist approach in organizational theory has primarily been concerned with optimizing the flow of decision-making and innovation along formally defined lines and hierarchical chains of command.

A more social approach has been interested in the design of  informal relationships such as advice-seeking, trust, and friendship – all of which help information to break down departmental silos to improve innovation.

Starling Hunter, PhD, has repeatedly called for additional research to reconcile the formalist and social network approaches to intra-organizational structure:

“Not many leaders have understood how to view their organization in a way that takes both formal and informal relationships into account”, Hunter says. “But when you show them a network map where these different roles are accounted for, they tend to understand immediately. That is because the formal hierarchy you learned about in business school is just a network of a kind, which is being seriously challenged given the development of more distributed organizations and virtual workers.”

 Figure 1. The striking visual difference between the organization seen as a network and as a hierarchy. 


Build shorter paths 

In the research article, Hunter, Jan Taug and Henrik Bentzen, demonstrate the impact of a formal organizational structure on the pattern of informal connections – such as expertise and information-sharing.

Figure 1 visualizes what a typical retail organization looks like as a hierarchy, and as a network.

The study employs a measure called «command distance» – defined as the length of the line between two actors in a chain of command – to gauge how the formal and informal relations influence each other. The article argues that the formal structure affords only one (often very long) path between any pair of actors. The combination of formal and informal relationships, however, results in far more numerous and much shorter paths between actors, speeding up knowledge flow.

This is a good thing. The article 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”, says Hunter. “And these could very well be people that should be connecting in order to create innovation and share expertise.”

This tendency of not-connecting in more formal networks was true for networks shaped by information-sharing, both when it happened directly between people in the network as well as in collaboration platforms like Workplace by Facebook. Notably on Workplace, separation in the formal structure mattered less when it came to forging connections. Meaning Workplace in some ways countered the adverse effects of the formal hierarchy when it came to sharing information.


What you want: broad networks  

The article concludes, perhaps not 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 with people further away in the formal structure”, Hunter explains.

The key question is how to facilitate and motivate more such 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”.

Working remotely means being physically separated. In the context of this paper, it also means that this physical distance can be added to the chain-of-command distance. Starling Hunter believes 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 Organizational Network Analysis can offer”, 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 – when selecting and deploying interventions”.


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