A relatively simple way to improve interconnectedness among community members is to develop a database that identifies each community member’s areas of expertise. For example, a searchable database designed around key words — indicating, for example, such subject areas as “China,” “economic forecasting,” or “nuclear weapons” — can allow community members to swiftly identify appropriate experts. To ease the tension of contacting an unknown colleague, we also suggest that database profiles include some personal information. Knowing that the person you’re contacting shares your hobby or alma mater can help start a conversation that might otherwise never happen.
Such databases are worth the small investment of time they require, but no purely technological solution will be enough to spark effective collaboration among community members. Many people are reluctant to ask colleagues whom they don’t know personally for help, even within the same organization, and for a wide range of reasons: Will they think I’m stupid for asking the questions? Are they really experts? How can I trust them? To reduce these inhibitions, companies can initiate face-to-face contact and well-structured virtual forums. These naturally lead to better introductions and interactions among erstwhile strangers and reduce the barriers to subsequent contact.
Both face-to-face and virtual events vary in effectiveness, depending on how carefully they are planned. Left to their own devices, most people naturally congregate with known peers. But if event organizers use data from a sociogram to design seating or to break out work groups, they can bring together people who have never met but have much to learn from each other.
And the web of connections need not be fostered by command; it can also emerge from the right sort of design. Recently, a large consumer products company held a global meeting of its researcher community. Each participant’s name badge contained a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip, coded with data about that person and his or her work: some personal background, some areas of expertise, and current research interests. As the attendees mingled during the cocktail hour, their name tags glowed whenever two people with common or complementary interests passed. As people responded to the lights and made introductions, a computer tracked the connections and continuously updated a sociogram of the participants on a large projection screen. Although a natural extrovert may find such a technique gimmicky, it resonated well with the generally introverted and technology-enamored scientists and researchers. By the end of the evening, a poorly connected network had evolved into a richly linked community of practice.
Leveraging Natural Brokers
Fostering networks by increasing connectivity among all members is a common approach, but the greatest improvements can often come from concentrating on the “natural brokers” in the community through targeted interaction. Consider our experience with the technology community of one of the largest utilities in the United States. The CIO feared that this widely distributed organization was solving the same problem repeatedly, without consistent standards, strategies, or solutions. Given the wide range of specialists in her department — database managers, field support technicians, Web site developers, power plant operating systems overseers, and more — it wasn’t surprising that her staff of highly skilled (and highly compensated) technologists often operated in isolation with limited collaboration and meager knowledge of each other.
To help, we conducted a network analysis and identified five “brokers” within the community. These people tended to provide the connections across organizational silos. We asked the five of them to get to know two specific people in parts of the network where they had few contacts. Inevitably, the natural brokers developed a better understanding of these colleagues’ expertise; they then drew upon that knowledge as they fulfilled their natural role of linking others to requisite expertise.