Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The challenge of moving from being a position in a hierarchy to becoming a node in a network

I was with a group of a dozen managers recently to do some work with them on networking with a view to helping them make a shift towards becoming a node in a network as opposed to the more traditional role identity of a position in a hierarchy.

I told the group that I would write a blog about my reflections of working with them on this topic as I was interested in the range of reactions that I saw, felt and heard.

The context of the discussion was a half-day session that forms part of a larger programme of learning aimed at first-line leaders.  The workshop covered some personal reflections on 'who am I as a leader' using a psychometric instrument and then extended this self-reflection into questions and exercises about learning interests and the shape and size of each persons current network.

What I saw

I asked each person to produce a work-focused network diagram.  With one or two exceptions the extent of the networks were limited to their immediate hierarchy or horizontal links to related functions like quality control, risk management, finance or HR.  Suprisingly few had any links to external professional organisations or networking groups of any kind.  External networking tools like LinkedIn were being used by the minority.

What I heard

For the majority, there was a lack of awareness of the extent and growth of networks and the inexorable impact that this is and will have on hierarchies.  I heard many examples of resistance in one form or another towards the challenge being posed towards ways of working. 

Comments like these were typical:
'I don't want to be part of the future'

'I don't have time [to use this organisation's internal social media site]'  As I have commented in a previous blog about teams and collaboration, for some, more time spent networking means a binary choice between meeting or not meeting a work-based goal. 

'The people who are using the [internal social media platform] have got nothing else to do'

In stark constrast was a the lone voice of one manager who said 'the network is my safety blanket'; safety in the sense that it provided this individual with the means to taking control of their career and making their own choices about when and where to move roles.  It was very clear that this individual had little need for their line manager or a HR function to determine career paths; this notion was as moribund as semaphore is to communications.  Of interest was that this individual was a non-UK national who had had experience of working and studying in the USA and China and for whom the network had evolved as the only effective way of staying in touch with family, friends and business contacts. 

What I felt

As I listened to and reflected on what was being said I noticed several things:

The strength of identity that many people feel towards the hierarchy and their position in it. 

The challenge of breaking away from a role-based identity towards one that's centred on personal values and interests; quite literally, 'who am I' [as a person, as a leader, etc] and therefore what are my interests.  

Resistance versus openness to this shift isn't about age. 



Although we are living in the 'Facebook generation' with in excess of 1 billion active users on that platform alone, it doesn't follow, or not yet at least, that this same enthusiasm for making strong and loose ties with friends has yet had the same impact in the workplace.  

Oscar Berg's collaboration pyramid captures very well the distinctions between formal and informal collaboration.  And central to what this model is about is the idea that to be able to collaborate with each other we need to shift our thinking away from a subservience for what the boss wants or thinks towards taking seriously our experience, our ideas and our interests.  

I've been working on and developing a model of conversational learning and social collaboration that attempts to draw attention to the everyday interactional work between an individual and others to help shape the work in network.  I will follow up on this in a subsquent blog.  
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