How organisations really work

Benjamin Waber has a grim piece of news for managers and CEOs: You’re out of the loop.
Wired magazine, 16 August 2008

This is something we all suspect about large organisations – unless you’re a senior manager in which case you probably think all valuable communication goes up and down the management hierarchy. Clive Thompson’s short article in Wired makes me want to read the full MIT paper by Benjamin Waber and his colleagues (how can I get a copy?).

Almost every time he analyzes a group, Waber discovers that the super-connector — the crucial person who routes news among team members — isn’t the manager.
– ibid.

The research team discovered this by putting location-aware badges on everybody and mapping how long they spent in proximity to each other. Using this information they could identify the Jan Molbys of the organisation – the midfielders who made and received the most passes. Information was flowing through the organisation in ad hoc patterns, enabled by these super-connectors. The data was good enough to predict when and where some of these exchanges would take place in the future – information that could be used to make sure the super-connectors were able to do their unofficial function more effectively.

I have worked in organisations where this data would be used to quash this sort of unofficial communication. Where is the cost-benefit analysis, managers would cry? How do we know these people aren’t simply gossiping? How can we keep them at their desks longer?

This is why the permanent use of such location-aware devices isn’t going to happen in any organisation I know. Such snooping would certainly be verboten by the Workers’ Council in any German organisation. For every benefit to the organisation and its employees there is a potential Big Brother use too – what’s to stop the people in possession of the data from identifying people who spend too much time in the restrooms for example. There’s a trust issue, and if you’re in an organisation where the senior management is trusted then its communication channels are probably in a fairly healthy state too.

So the permanent use of location-aware badges is unlikely to happen in your organisation, but the knowledge gained from this experiment could be of lasting value. It might be possible to identify the super-connectors in your organisation without such intrusive monitoring. If you value their networking skills then you should find ways to support them.


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