The company also scheduled a regular one-hour call among the brokers, so they could learn from one another as they shared the challenges of creating productive links among people. Why, for example, did some peripheral players resist connection? Were they new to the company? Did they need better mentoring to help them integrate with the community? Or did they simply feel comfortable with their own expertise? Was that why they had never become aware of the value of reaching out to others?
Ultimately, the company publicized the brokers’ collective observations about the expertise available within the community, and then coached the brokers to point people to other experts in the network rather than attempting to answer all questions directly. Once again, the results could be quantified through network analysis: Simply creating ties among these five brokers and connecting each of them to two peripheral people improved the cohesion of the entire network by 22 percent.
Better communities of practice can be built not only by leveraging the natural brokers who already exist, but also by increasing or amplifying the personal network connections of critically placed people. Research has shown that one of the consistent differentiators of high performers is their tendency to maintain ties outside their unit and outside the organization. Using coaching, mentoring, or career development efforts to help a greater number of strategically important people diversify their networks can have a powerful impact on the individual and on the community as a whole.
Sociograms can also be used to reveal personal network maps, which cover a variety of dimensions and can offer rich insights into ways to improve network effectiveness. Typical is the case of a high-potential staff manager in a common career trap: an insular personal network dominated by other functional professionals within her own company. Although technically savvy, she did not use emerging communication technologies such as e-mail, instant messaging, and videoconferencing, all of which offered excellent means of reaching outside her day-to-day network of colleagues. By helping this central person expand the diversity of her network, the company improved her effectiveness and ensured that the community of practice to which she belonged would not be overly influenced by a small group of inward-facing people.
In another case, this time at a well-known financial-services company, network analysis highlighted the fact that a small group of emerging superstars generated the bulk of value-creating conversations. One woman in particular, the nominal leader of the community of practice, proved surprisingly central. On her own, she accounted for one-fifth of the value creation in the entire network. When we asked one of the company’s leaders what would happen if she left the organization, he blanched. It turned out that she had recently submitted her resignation. Had the community been rigorously monitored earlier, more deliberate efforts to engage her might have prevented her sudden departure. Alternatively, a richer set of network connections could have been fostered to make the community less susceptible to the harm from the loss of a single individual.
The Networker’s Reward
With the ongoing outsourcing of operational tasks to low-cost providers in India, China, and other developing countries, executives find themselves managing organizations full of far-flung knowledge workers. Accordingly, they must focus more attention on their people. Naturally occurring communities of practice offer a powerful vehicle for this. Managers can directly shape the relationships and information flows by providing better information access, by assigning roles such as formally designated “global advisors,” and by working with individual informal “brokers.”
A brain surgeon removing a tumor relies on steady hands and highly sophisticated imaging technology that provides continual feedback from the patient. Similarly, an operating executive who wants to make targeted interventions into emergent communities of practice requires a deft touch supported by good information. The goal is to extract as much value from these intangible assets as we do, at best, from tangible assets like infrastructure and machinery.