This HBR article is a very good primer to think about networks in companies.
A lot of discussion nowadays seems to be ideological: on the one hand the view of heroic leadership with hierarchy and independent business units. On the other hand self-organizing networks with empowered knowledge workers who work in a democratic way.
Gret Satell takes a sober view and explains:
- Next to org charts there are always informal networks. It is up to leadership to make something out of them.
- A well-functioning network has local clusters and short path connections between them. Units are clusters, created and stabilized through organizational structure. The issue of many today’s organizations is that they are not good at letting sensible connections emerge among units.
- Hierarchy is not evil, and even helpful sometimes. In fact, also in natural networks you’ll find hierarchies to cope with the external environment. A prime example is the human visual perception apparatus.
The conclusion on the roles of leaders should be expanded, though. I believe that with respect to networks, leadership has to do the following:
- For directing: Role model and encourage a process of joint sense making. This means taking care that available and relevant information for decision making is shared and the right questions are asked.
- For managing: as written in the article, leaders have to make sure through structure and processes that a shared context within the organization emerges. And they have to take care that an alignment of resources across units takes place. This is the part where leaders should place more emphasis on cross unit information flow and connectivity.
- For leading: an organization is always about people. In that respect, leaders should make sure that connections are made such that people find a fit to their individual skills and more individual learning takes place.