Image by Leigh Blackall

Social networks are hot topics these days. But the allure of Facebook and LinkedIn also holds a trap: they can lure us into thinking that building and maintaining our connections ties is simply a matter of using our smart phones to “bring people to the square” (as in the Arab Spring), communicating through Twitter, or attending the latest networking meeting.

To make informal networks a force for institutional learning and innovation, we must get beyond the idea that network creation is finding each other in the virtual hallways of social media. We need to bring focus to our networks, identify the value we wish to mine from them, align around that imperative, and then take joint action to pilot and perfect new products and services. This progression is explained by Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor here.

What are some quick and easy ways to make networks a force for institutional learning and innovation?

Connect Newbies to Critical Connectors. The science of networks shows us that a small number of people have disproportionate influence over the whole network. However, since, as individuals, we are confined to a view that extends only two or three degrees beyond our local network, we can’t always locate these critical connectors. People with important knowledge and social capital who are in other divisions or several levels below us in grade are invisible to us.

We can accelerate learning by identifying these critical connectors, which usually happens through network mapping. Network mapping uncovers the flows and bottlenecks in information exchange in the organization. The resulting network maps visually depict interactions and missing connections between individuals in departments, divisions and external organizations.

By connecting newcomers to the organization, people in new positions, and people who need to learn specific skills to critical connectors, we can accelerate their learning. Since they’re so hooked into the organization and its resources, critical connectors can get newbies up and running much quicker than others.

Use Existing Communities of Practice. Organizational networks contain existing communities of practice through which expertise and innovation are shared. It takes focus and effort to transform the knowledge of these communities into competitive advantage. The employees who coordinate and populate communities are a social and intellectual resource. Align them with important initiatives. Treat them with attention and respect. Celebrate the learning and innovation that can be credited to such communities.

Sometimes the communities of practice fail to form because opportunities to align around a shared purpose are thwarted by a culture of control. Pulse groups, search conferences, and other approaches that involve employees in organization change can catalyze energy around communities of practice.

The take-away is simple: networks can be encouraged in any organization, whether a large budget is available or not. All it takes is the willingness to invest time and the ability to engage others in the process of connecting, aligning, and collaborating.