How Networked Are You?

Helen is one of my best friends in the information business. We have known each other for about 30 years, but as Helen lives in the United States and I live in the U.K., we now meet all too infrequently. Helen and I have developed our careers in the information industry in very different ways. And while we are both avid networkers, we have developed contact lists with very little overlap. We each like to think we know everyone in the information business, but the reality is that we don’t. As we get older (and in my case grayer), we have great difficulty in tracking the new entrants to our profession and business, and by the same account they would probably not be aware that we even exist and have networks that they could use.

Scenarios like these are played out in every organization: Senior managers have well-developed networks and are blind to the problems that newcomers to the organization face when they need to know who knows what. Often, they are left to rely on a list of hits from an intranet search engine of dubious merit. The problems get worse when one of the senior managers leaves. A good deal of attention is focused on the loss of the knowledge they have, which, in reality, will probably not lead to the demise of the organization. The more critical problem is that they may well have been the node linking two or more networks and, with the node gone, these networks now operate in isolation.

And yet there is more bad news. Organizations now do virtual work to such an extent that employees may work on projects and business processes with colleagues that they will never meet. Few organizations appreciate the issues around using virtual meeting applications such as NetMeeting or WebEx. They are taught the mechanics of logging on but not how to build trust and collaboration with people that they’ve never even seen. These problems were brought into sharp relief by the launch decision for the Space Shuttle Challenger (Diane Vaughan’s book, The Challenger Launch Decision, published by The University of Chicago Press in 1996, tells the story brilliantly).

Over the last few years, the growth in social networking applications such as LinkedIn has been colossal. As I write this, the friends of a missing woman in the U.K. set up a social network hub to provide a forum for any information that might help find her. Tragically, she was found dead, but an important precedent was created.

Too many organizations believe that staff directories should simply list each employee’s name, telephone number, and email address. People want to know where others are in the organization, what projects they are working on, what expertise they have, who else they might know through a professional affiliation, and a great deal more. In Europe, there are some tricky data privacy issues, but these can and should be overcome rather than being used by HR departments as an excuse for inaction. Often the problem is that the information that is held in an HR portal cannot easily be exported to an intranet application, and even when export is possible, enabling staff to revise and enhance the information seems to be beyond the capabilities of the IT department.

Another excuse is that people do not like being bothered with silly questions, so they hide their expertise. That is easily overcome. Several organizations I know have a policy that any “first contact” must be by email and the email has to set out what the enquirer has already done to try to answer the question. This gives the expert a chance to assess a whole range of parameters about the enquirer, and give a response that could range from “I’m very busy” to “call me now.”

The cost to a business of not facilitating knowledge exchange is probably quite colossal. Not only does the new employee in particular not work effectively for months because he has difficulty in building a network, but he may feel that the organization is not taking him seriously and helping him build a career. So what does your company do to facilitate knowledge sharing? Are there courses in how to manage virtual teams? How do you promote your expertise and your career in the organization you work for? It’s time to strike a better balance between information and expertise.