Building professional networks in open organizations

How to build a professional network when you work in a bazaar

Having trouble making contacts in your organization? You might be applying the wrong strategies.

people in different locations who are part of the same team
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Professional social networking—creating interpersonal connections between work colleagues or professionals—can take many forms and span organizations across industries. Establishing professional networks takes time and effort, and when someone either joins or departs an organization, that person's networks often need to be rebuilt in a new work environment.

Professional social networks perform similar functions in different organizations—information sharing, mentorship, opportunities, work interests, and more—but the methods and reasons for making particular connections in an organization can vary between conventional and open organizations. And these differences make a difference: to the way colleagues relate, to how they build trust, to the amount and kinds of diversity within the organization, and to the forces that create collaboration. All these elements are interrelated, and they contribute to and shape the social networks people form.

An open organization's emphasis on inclusivity can produce networks more effective at solving business problems than those that emerge in conventional, hierarchical organizations. This notion has a long history in open source thinking. For example, in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric Raymond writes that "Sociologists years ago discovered that the averaged opinion of a mass of equally expert (or equally ignorant) observers is quite a bit more reliable a predictor than the opinion of a single randomly-chosen one of the observers." So let's examine how the structure and purpose of social networks impact what each type of organization values.

Social networks in conventional organizations

When I worked in conventional organizations and would describe what I do for work, the first thing people asked me was how I was related to someone else, usually a director-level leader. "Is that under Hira?" they'd say. "Do you work for Malcolm?" That makes sense considering conventional organizations function in a "top-down" way; when trying to situate work or an employee, people wanted to understand the structure of the network from that top-down perspective.

In other words, in conventional organizations the social network depends upon the hierarchical structure, so they track one another. In fact, even figuring out where an employee exists within a network is a very "top-down organization" kind of concern.

But that isn't all that the underlying hierarchy does. It also vets associates. A focus on the top-down network can determine an employee's "value" in the network because the network itself is a system of ongoing power relations that grants people placed in its different locations varying levels of value. It downplays the value of individual talents and skills. Therefore, a person's connections in the conventional organization facilitate that person's ability to be proactive, heard, influential, and supported in their careers.

An open organization's emphasis on inclusivity can produce networks more effective at solving business problems than those that emerge in conventional, hierarchical organizations.

The conventional organization's formal structure defines employees' social networks in particular ways—some of which might be benefits, some of which might be disadvantages, depending on one's context—such as:

  • It's easier to know "who's who" and see how people are related more quickly (often this builds trusted networks within the particular hierarchy).
  • Often, this increased understanding of relationships means there's less redundancy of work (projects have a clear owner embedded in a particular network) and communication (people know who is responsible for communicating what).
  • Associates can feel "stuck" in a power structure, or like they can't "break into" power structures that sometimes (too often?) don't work, diminishing meritocracy.
  • Crossing silos of work and effort is difficult and collaboration suffers.
  • Power transfers slowly; a person's ability to engage is determined more in alignment with network created by the hierarchical structure than by other factors (like individual abilities), reducing what is considered "community" and the benefits of its membership.
  • Competition seems more clear; understanding "who is vying for what" usually occurs within a recognized and delimited hierarchical structure (and the scarcity of positions in the power network increase competition so competition can be more fierce).
  • Adaptability can suffer when a more rigid network defines the limits of flexibility; what the network "wants" and the limits of collaboration can be affected this same way.
  • Execution occurs much more easily in rigid networks, where direction is clear and often leaders manage by overdirecting.
  • Risk is decreased when the social networks are less flexible; people know what needs to happen, how, and when (but this isn't always "bad" considering the wide range of work in an organization; some job functions require less risk, such as HR, mergers and acquisitions, legal, etc.).
  • Trust within the network is greater, especially when an employee is part of the formal network (when someone is not part of the network, exclusion can be particularly difficult to manage or to rectify).

Social networks in open organizations

While open organizations can certainly have hierarchical structures, they don't operate only according to that network. Their professional networking structure is more flexible (or "all over and whenever").

An open organization is more associate-centric than leader-centric.

In an open organization, when I've described what I do for work virtually no one asks "for whom?" An open organization is more associate-centric than leader-centric. Open values like inclusivity and specific governance systems like meritocracy contribute to this; it's not who you know but rather it's what you know and how you use it (e.g., "bottom-up"). In an open organization, I don't feel like I'm fighting to show my value; my ideas are inherently valuable.  I sometimes have to demonstrate how using my idea is more valuable than using someone else's idea―but that means I'm vetting myself within the community of my associates (including leadership), rather than being vetted solely by top-down leadership.

In this way, an open organization doesn't assess employees based on the network but rather on what they know of the associate as an individual. Does this person have good ideas? Does she work toward those ideas (lead them) by using the open organization values (that is, share those ideas and work across the organization to include others and work transparently, etc.)?

Open organizations also structure social networks in particular ways (which, again, could be advantageous or disadvantageous depending on one's goals and desires), including:

  • People are more responsible for their networks, reputations, skills, and careers.
  • Competition (for resources, power, promotions, etc.) decreases because these organizations are by nature more collaborative (even during a "collision," the best outcome is negotiation, not winning, and competition hones the ideas instead of creating wedges between people).
  • Power is more fluid and dynamic, flowing from person to person (but this also means there can be a misunderstanding about accountability or responsibility and activities can go undone or unfinished because there is not a clear sense of ownership).
  • Trust is created "one associate at a time," rather than through the reputation of the network in which the person is situated.
  • Networks self-configure around a variety of work and activities, rising reactively around opportunity (this aids innovation but can add to confusion because who makes decisions, and who is in "control" is less clear).
  • Rate of execution can decrease in confusing contexts because what to do and how and when to do it requires leadership skills in setting direction and creating engaged and skilled associates.
  • Flexible social networks also increase innovation and risk; ideas circulate faster and are more novel, and execution is less assured.
  • Trust is based on associate relationships (as it should be!), rather than on sheer deference to structure.

Making it work

If you're thinking of transitioning from one type of organizational structure to another, consider the following when building and maintaining your professional social networks.

Tips from conventional organizations

  • Structure and control around decision-making isn't a bad thing; operational frameworks need to be clear and transparent, and decision-makers need to account for their decisions.
  • Excelling at execution requires managers to provide focus and the ability to provide sufficient context while filtering out anything that could distract or confuse.
  • Established networks help large groups of people work in concert and manage risk.

Tips from open organizations

  • Strong leaders are those who can provide different levels of clarity and guidance according to the various styles and preferences of associates and teams without creating inflexible networks.
  • Great ideas win more, not established networks.
  • People are more responsible for their reputations.
  • The circulation of ideas and information is key to innovation. Loosening the networks in your organization can help these two elements occur with increased frequency and breadth.

About the author

Image of Heidi
Heidi Hess von Ludewig - Heidi Hess von Ludewig researches networked workplace creativity from the systems perspective, which means that she examines the relationships of multiple elements within the workplace that influence how individuals and groups perform innovative and creative work. She spent over fifteen years in the software industry performing a variety of roles, from developer to analyst, for Fortune 500 companies before receiving her PhD from North Carolina State University in 2014. Her research informs the...