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Dr. Curtis L. Odom Headshot

The Role Of The Informal Network

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If you have been kind enough to follow my blog, you will then know that I have talked about this phenomenon in the past. However, an article by John Kotter in the November 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review got me thinking deeply about the duality of organizations.

In every organization, there is the formal and the informal network. And within each of those, there are nexuses of power dynamics that arise. In the traditional and more formal organizational structure, you have command and control. People gain power based on title and place. In the informal organizational structure, the network, people gain power through information and connections.

What Kotter does that's interesting is he names this distinction, and he challenges companies to accept the distinction and to embrace it. The article talks about creating a dual structure where the network is uninhibited by the formalities of the hierarchies bureaucracy and command and control structures.

The challenge for most companies is that people are resistant to change, and creating an informal network that focuses on strategy and is not controlled by a formal hierarchy is ripe for resistance. The irony is, it is already in place... you just have not named it. And more importantly, you have not sanctioned it. It operates like a favela in Rio. You know it is there, it is impossible to miss, but because the law hasn't sanctioned them, they operate under a veil of secrecy.

But here is the catch: they are organized. They have structures and rules, they have guiding coalitions that are responsible for the upkeep and in that way they gain legitimacy. So the question is, what is taking you so long? Why not name it, sanctioned it and use the informal network to inspire and engage your people?

Maybe you just have not paid much attention to its existence. Maybe you know it is there, but you refuse to believe in its inherent value. Whatever the case, it is time you embraced it. If you are unsure of what it looks like. Ask people in your organization how they get work done. Do they go through the formal hierarchy, or do they work around people? My bet is they move around the hierarchy to get work done.

Are you sending out notes to people telling them that they have to notify the formal leadership team before talking above their station? If so, it is right there in front of you. You cannot stop it, so name it, sanction it and use it.

Remember the old adage... if you cannot beat them, join them!