Jennie Björk. Foto: Karin Rudefelt.
Research on social networks focuses on the potential of the relationships between actors, not just on the actors themselves. Jennie Björk is an associate professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, and she researches social networks and their roles in relation to creativity and innovation in organizations. She also lectures in the Manager and Leader program for SSE Executive Education, where she helps leaders leverage opportunities based on social networks in their companies.
“I believe that as a manager, you should view the relationships in your organization as a smorgasbord of opportunities.”
“For example: are there people with a lot of connections in the organization who have valuable insights? Are there people who you can connect who might be able to learn a lot from one another? What do the relationships between the sales and development departments really look like and what can you do to improve them?” says Jennie.
Social networks – simple foundations with huge potential
A social network comprises a group of actors who are connected to each other through some form of relationship. An actor may be an individual, group or organization, depending on the type of system. Actors may have different levels of centrality, i.e., more or fewer relationships with the others in the system. The connections may be strong or weak, depending on how often and how much interaction people have with each other. Different types of relationships mean the flows in the system are operating under different conditions.
A clearer image of the organization based on its social networks can provide clarity in how value is generated within the organization and why the operation functions a certain way. It also makes it possible to map risks, identify bottlenecks, or find holes to plug in relationships in order to facilitate deeper learning or innovation, for example.
A new perspective on organization provides new opportunities
The most important thing for you as a leader to take away from the research on social networks, according to Jennie Björk, is to understand that the opportunities of your business or organization and your employees’ capacity to do their jobs are closely connected to the network of social relationships in your organization. Relationships can involve both opportunities and obstacles.
Based on this perspective, your role as a leader is to ensure that your employees are as well placed as possible to create relationships that support your business strategy and plans moving forward.
A system should be understood based on the company’s goals and priorities
There is no optimal network structure, according to Jennie. Whether or not the system works well depends on the company’s priorities. This can be illustrated by a few typical relationship connections.
When people work closely and frequently with each other, for example in a small department, we might talk about clusters with close connections to one another. These kinds of close connections function brilliantly for deepening knowledge. The individuals build up a shared world of information that helps them dig deeper and understand more of the world together. This works well for delimited projects and for exploring the possibilities of a new product for example. However, the cluster can also become a sort of “bubble” – there is a risk that in the end, people achieve more of the same together rather than something brand new. So if your business or organization is looking for truly disruptive, innovative ideas, this might not necessarily be the best network structure for the purpose.
If idea generation and innovation are high on your agenda, weak connections are particularly compelling. Brand new ideas can come from people who are far away in relationship terms from those who work with business development – an incredible resource in an innovation context. But this requires opportunities for people to meet outside of their ordinary context in a forum that stimulates this kind of discussion. Does your organization have this kind of forum?
A framework that supports what many leaders already “know”
Because collaboration and communication are a large part of many people’s jobs, it makes sense that relationships have a significant impact on how an organization functions. But social networks can still feel like a “soft area” to address as a manager. Still, the argument for doing so is solidly supported by logic and hard numbers, according to Jennie Björk. A network perspective can make the connections clearer and lend greater legitimacy to the argument surrounding challenges and opportunities. “B may be what the management group is looking for, but with a network analysis, they can also see that B needs A in order to deliver its value.”
Where does value creation actually happen?
Good managers and leaders often have some idea of what the informal structure looks like, but they may not see the whole picture, according to Jennie. And they might not understand the value of different types of connections either.
For example, an organization often has recognized key people – people who are more visible than others in connection with new ideas and who receive attention internally in the form of extra time, praise and resources. But value is rarely created by a single individual in the organization.
“Don’t fall into the trap of only paying attention to the person who presents the final idea – recognize the contributions made to it along the way.”
With a greater understanding of how different individuals and relationships contribute to the whole – such as people with a lot of ideas, relationship bridges, or catalysts – it’s worth thinking about what is encouraged in your organization. Are there employees whose contributions never receive attention or are never rewarded?
Recognize the opportunities and take action
In conclusion, Jennie encourages you to review your network of social relationships to obtain valuable insights on how your organization actually functions and how value and ideas are created on a deeper level. And then ask yourself two important questions:
- Does my organization’s social network have the right structure to get us where we are going?
- If not, how can I, as a manager, help to put that structure in place?
MANAGER AND LEADER
This program aims to provide you with new tools and perspectives and give you the confidence to try out new approaches that may take your leadership to the next level.
In the framework of the program, Jennie Björk lectures on social networks and you will have the opportunity to work with exercises that clarify the possibilities for your own operation.
Want to know more?
For more information about the program Manager and Leader, please contact program advisor Karolina Bardland, tel. +46 70 738 36 33 firstname.lastname@example.org or download the program broschure to the right above.