• November 30, 2022

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This is the second of two articles looking at why formal and informal networks should be merged. Formal networks were discussed in part 1 which can be found here.

Informal networks

Contrarily to formal networks, informal networks emerge out of necessity through the creation of relationships between individuals that transcend formal structures. They arise when a formal network is not providing the structure, communication, authority or action that is required. Authority, communication and actions are shared between those within the informal structure. In a paper from 1994, the professor David Krackhardt, who specialises on organizations, notes: “informal networks of relations span across the entire organization, unimpeded by preordained formal structures and [are] fluid enough to adapt to immediate technological demands. These relations can be multiple and complex. But one characteristic they share is that they emerge in the organization, they are not preplanned.”

However, as with formal networks, informal networks also have disadvantages. The largest of these is that any informal network emerges with the limited knowledge and vision of the participants of that network. As informal networks emerge, rather than being designed, the larger goals and visions of the organization can be either missed, misaligned or even worse – misdirected such that resources are directed towards the wrong goals.

And so, with each having flaws and benefits, the advantages of both formal and informal networks can, for the most part, only overcome the disadvantages by merging these networks together.

Why formal and informal networks need to be merged

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Organizations focus on creating formal and informal networks independently, without seeing the interaction between the two. However, it is unrealistic to look at either formal or informal networks separately and expect to gain a full understanding of how an organisation works. As pointed out by Guiseppe Soda and Akbar Zaheer in a 2012 paper, when formal authority relations do not mirror informal networks, this can cause confusion and inconsistent messaging, which in turn impacts performance. Organisations are the sum of many things, of which formal and informal networks are part, and as such both networks interact and affect each other implicitly. Therefore, it is necessary to look at both formal and informal networks together to see how an organisation can evolve organically.

Hybrid working through the lens of formal and informal networks

As pointed out by my colleague, Tom Rose – a doctoral researcher at UCL who researches the practical applications of social network theory in organisations, one of the probable downsides of hybrid working is that employees have fewer opportunities to informally discover and interact with others in the organisation. This leads to the breakdown and stagnation of informal networks. Spending less time in the workplace can cause a reduction in the socialising that allows informal networks to flourish. As a result, employees can become overly dependent on formal networks to get things done. This can lead to key players being overloaded, increased difficulty in identifying who needs to talk to whom and a general reduction in communication and therefore innovation. However, as Rose points out, there is no one size fits all solution, and rather than forcing people back into the office so that they can socialise more, each organisation needs to find its own solution.

Incorporating the formal into the informal

McEvily and colleagues summed up very well why often it is more effective to understand the way informal networks work, before trying to design a formal structure – something that is very rarely done.

“If Salancik was right when he argued that it is “inevitably the flow of people and classes that carve bare spots in the grass where the sidewalks need to be”, there is no point in being structural designers of organizations that “much like architects try to predict where pedestrian traffic should flow on a university campus” and “lay cement, install fences and other obstacles”. Instead, perhaps the process of design should include observing the emerging system of informal relationships (the “bare spots in the grass”), to understand how formal structures can accommodate established patterns of interaction and improve upon them with sensible designs.”

Observing, cultivating, and accommodating informal networks can therefore help to inform the formal networks that organisations still need to ensure that goals are aligned with day to day work. Allowing an organic, emergent network to guide a more formal system would seem to be the best of both worlds, although each must still be treated with equal reverence to avoid the pitfalls of imposing an informal network too strongly. While more research is clearly needed on this subject, there is an opportunity for workplaces to positively change by giving equal weighting to both formal and informal social networks.

I wish I had known that before.

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