Ideas for Leaders #017

Harnessing Individual and Organization Networks

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Key Concept

Leveraging employee networks can optimize individual and organizational performance and unearth hidden talent. Organizations teem with informal employee networks. Awareness of these living networks, and an understanding of how collaborations take place between top performers, can be a great, effective tool for overall success. To do so, managers must understand both the structure of talent networks within their company, and the categories their employees fall into. 

Idea Summary

Finding ways to generate more value from employees and optimize talent is critical for leaders and HR professionals. Organizations could get even more from their investments in talent management if they focused on collaboration. That is why leaders need to be aware of how collaboration takes place among top performers and key experts in their organizations, and of the ways they can make informal networks more effective than the sum of individual employee contributions.

First it is important to understand how talent practices can improve collaboration in organizations. The research behind this Idea involved an online survey of talent managers, interviews with talent experts and in-depth case studies, all the while considering how companies can leverage employee networks to increase individual and organizational performance.

In the case of traditional methods, companies frequently end up not only overlooking talent but also not seeing that some of their high performers aren’t actually making collaborative contributions to the organization. There are four categories of employees:

  1. High-performing talent: early in their employment, these employees invest in, develop and renew high-quality network relationships. They also maintain memberships in multiple professional/technical communities, and think strategically about personal relationships.
  2. Marginalized talent: these are employees score low on both individual performance and network contributions.
  3. Hidden talent: this refers to the surprisingly large number of employees who don’t register on management’s radar. Even though they may make significant contributions in ways that ultimately benefit the organization, they don’t appear on the top talent lists.
  4. Underutilized talent: these are employees that may be in the top performance category, but make relatively little collaborative contribution.

There are several different ways managers can help improve the effectiveness of these categories of employees; for example, the effectiveness of marginalized employees can often be improved through either performance management processes or individual development plans that create an informal network connecting them to critical organizational segments. Helping poor performers see the effects that their lack of a balanced informal network can have, can be more motivating than simply urging them to collaborate with strangers or build large personal networks.

Business Application

Network-centric talent practices’ can help influence individual and organizational performance:

  • Recruitment and staffing: employers have long given special consideration to employee referrals over ‘blind’ applicants. Social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook can now generate the same kind of impact as a high-value referral, allowing recruiters to identify, assess and target suitable candidates using an array of variables. As such, social networking, online or in person, is an important conduit for variable connections and collaborations.
  • On-boarding and off-boarding: on-boarding (i.e. the introduction of a new employee) need not always be treated as a tactical process; research shows that the most effective approaches are relational. Leveraging social networks is possible for both on and off-boarding employees (i.e. when they leave the organization); for instance, maintaining connections with former employees is an effective way to ‘keep your talent close’ in anticipation of future openings.
  • Employee engagement: keeping employees intellectually and emotionally engaged with their work is critical to the success of any organization, and it prevents employees from becoming marginalized or underutilized. Effective use of social networks seems to help.
  • Learning and development: companies can benefit greatly by replicating the most successful networks throughout the organization through talent programs and human resource investments. Mentoring, peer network coaching, as well as formal programs are all examples of tools that can help that learning and development.
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