Mapping Employee Collaboration

Feb 03, 2009

By Tom Ryan

A mapping technique,
called social-network analysis, is increasingly being used by corporations
to understand how their workers communicate with each other. Under the
rather simple method, employees are each asked who they turn to for help.
A map is then drawn revealing dark patches around employees who work closely
with others and lighter areas where there’s little interaction.

According to an article
in The Wall Street Journal, companies are using such mapping techniques
to understand weak points in internal networking activities. It also promises
to help identify
"unheralded stars" as it has been shown that
the best collaborators in organizations aren’t discovered in performance

The article states that
collaboration efficiency has become more important as workers are spread
across the globe.

University of Virginia
professor Rob Cross said such analyses can help:

  • Improve efficiency by curbing
    silos and bottlenecks;
  • Increase revenue through cross-selling;
  • Spur innovation by connecting
    key experts;
  • Support organizational change
    through opinion leaders;
  • Identify key employees who
    make colleagues more productive.

MWH, a Colorado-based
company specializing in water projects, started using social-network analysis
in 2003 when executives sought to reduce costs and improve cooperation
among their seven technology centers. It found that information flowed
well inside each location, but communication between offices was poor.
Frequently, the only information was funneled through bosses. Said Victor Gulas,
who runs both information technology and human resources for MWH, "There
were silos and there were gatekeepers."

After five years under
social-networking, MWH estimates that it takes its technology workers on
average 2.4 steps to get needed information, down from 3.2 in 2003.

One solution to improve
collaboration is to periodically send workers to different offices to get
to know each other. For example, MWH sent U.S. workers to fill vacation
openings in the U.K.

But the bigger problem
appears to be that office managers aren’t delegating enough. MWH has hired
executive coaches to help its top managers become less authoritarian and
more collaborative. One acting coach was hired for a manager pinpointed
"low energy."

Ken Loughridge, the director of technology-support services at
MWH, checks his own networking maps to make sure he’s not a bottleneck
and overly-interfering with his staff’s interactions.

"I struggle," Mr. Loughridge admitted. "It
was difficult to let go."

Discussion Questions:
What are the best ways for managers to encourage employees to collaborate
with each other? What do you think of the potential for mapping techniques
around social-network analysis for organizations?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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8 Comments on "Mapping Employee Collaboration"

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Mark Lilien
14 years 1 month ago

Every so often, the “whom everybody turns to” ends up being an enabler, allowing others to get lazy. The enabler, doing everyone else’s research, can’t finish her/his own work. I know this is the exception, that collaboration often begets superior results compared to silo management, but an extreme in the opposite direction might be suboptimal, too. In some company cultures “collaboration” often means ultra-slow competitive response, excessive conformity, with no one taking responsibility for action.

Bob Phibbs
14 years 1 month ago

While this is interesting, I would put the bulk of the credit/blame on how staff interact on who is hired in the first place. Bitter Betty isn’t going to interact well with customers or staff and making excuses, “Oh, but she’s really good in accounting,” leads to the good ones leaving. My simple method: hire right–leave the maps to Google.

Max Goldberg
14 years 1 month ago

It’s important for managers to lead by example, and in this case, to communicate openly to other managers and employees. By encouraging employees to share ideas to improve the business, managers not only foster communication, and make the business more efficient, they also will build employee loyalty to the business by making them feel valuable.

David Zahn
14 years 1 month ago
The best way to encourage collaboration is to reward it. Don’t talk about it and then create a “zero-sum” appraisal system where some employees can only get above an average raise if someone else gets below the average. That pits employee against employee and leads to hoarding of information, avoiding those that are perceived to be in competition with the employee, and not acknowledging that there is a question to the person or function that can help (rather than a friend or non-threatening colleague who may not have the right answer, or worse, provides a wrong answer). Base performance reviews, raises, promotions, or other evaluative measures at least in part on collaboration and watch how quickly it becomes part of the fabric and culture of the company. Continue to reward individualism and that is what will be provided by the employees individually and the organization as a whole. Social networking as a tool is fine–what is more critical though is the action one takes as a result of learning the paths of communication.
Doron Levy
Doron Levy
14 years 1 month ago
Here is my ‘view from the field’: Frontline associates (especially in retail) use sites like Facebook and MySpace regularly. I have also discovered that they use these sites to not only communicate with each other socially, but also to talk about work related issues. I have seen wall postings such as “XXXX, you didn’t finish that Crest display, how do you want it done?” and “Team leads are having a meeting at 9am.” Many individuals have set up Fanclubs on Facebook representing their particular location. Nowadays, these sites have mobile applications so when an important message comes through, everyone is sure to get it on their cell phone or mobile device. Something to consider is do we want all our frontline people walking around with cell phones in their pockets while on shift? Managers need to be aware how the brand is represented on these sites. I’ve seen these Fanclubs become rant sessions where disgruntled associates, past and present, gather together to basically destroy the brand’s reputation (anyone remember What I don’t like to… Read more »
Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
14 years 1 month ago

It is my opinion based on my experience–the best way to get good and positive collaboration among associates & employees is to have a well-understood and thoroughly manifested corporate philosophy that everyone from janitors to the CEO is expected to live by–and also be measured by.

For instance, if your corporate philosophy is “to serve our customers better than anyone else could serve them” then everyone should be expected to make a daily and objective check on themselves to see if they are achieving that overriding goal. If not, then it’s back to the drawing board and trying even harder. That then becomes “par” for the business, the company’s philosophical and operating “golf course,” which the CEO and all associates use as the center piece of daily collaboration, thereby relegating all other palaver and agendas into second position, i.e., off base.

Ian Percy
14 years 1 month ago
According to this thinking, all workers are robots and all you have to do is change their programming and presto–collaboration. I’m sorry, but give me a break. 96% of corporations are locked into an old mechanistic focus and it’s destroying them. These are the companies who measure “2.4” steps in communication and who have “policies” on collaboration. My goodness, I’m so shaken by this I don’t know whether to keep writing or take my medication. Do disgruntled employees have any trouble communicating and collaborating on their disgruntled-ness? Of course not; it spreads like wildfire. The same thing holds true when people are enthusiastic about meaningful work, have their eyes set on lofty challenging goals, have an awareness of their own giftedness and destiny, are given the chance to innovate, to be recognized and rewarded. In short when they love what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and who they’re doing it with. When there is ‘unity’ you automatically and effortlessly have common-unity-cation. When there is no unity you can map for the dark holes all… Read more »
Mike Osorio
Mike Osorio
14 years 1 month ago

My experience shows that “mapping” of employee behaviors is extremely limiting in drawing conclusions about employee communication tendencies. The real issues lie in two areas:

First, a cohesive company vision or lack thereof determines the important behaviors of leaders and therefore impacts employee behaviors. A scattered vision creates scattered leaders, which creates employees with erratic communication habits.

Second, and more importantly, people are who they are. If an employee is naturally collaborative, they will create the networks and means to communicate that they need–whether or not the company puts in programs and systems to facilitate that behavior. Likewise, an employee who is unsocial or quiet will not take advantage of company systems.

Tools like “social-network analysis” are just brilliant sounding products that consultants can sell to companies that lack a cohesive vision and/or fail to hire employees who naturally collaborate.


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