It’s all about whom you know

Top performers know where different expertise resides in an organization
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/28/2009

Leading in a connected world: In April, the Strategic Capability Network hosted a special event with Rob Cross, author of Driving Results Through Social Networks, to talk about how leaders can make the most of workplace networks. For more information about SCNetwork, visit

It’s all about whom you know

When networks, talent management intersect

SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies

It's all about whom you know

When knowledge workers need to solve problems and find ways to do their jobs more efficiently, they rely on colleagues, not databases, as sources of information, according to Rob Cross, author of Driving Results Through Social Networks.

In his work analysing networks at more than 300 organizations, Cross has asked thousands of employees where they go to find the information they need to do their jobs.

“We have yet to see a database beat a human,” said Cross, speaking at a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto last month.

Networks play a critical role in organizational excellence, said Cross, who is also an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce in Charlottesville, Va.

Formal organizational structures, which can also be geographical in nature, set up barriers between different groups, making innovation less likely. Informal networks can bridge these organizational lines and allow for innovation, he said.

A good network analysis, which looks at who gets what information from whom and where the valuable information resides, will uncover an organization’s trusted ties — those people most employees turn to for information to do their jobs.

Often about three per cent to five per cent of employees account for 25 per cent to 35 per cent of the trusted ties in a team, said Cross.

“Usually in groups of any size, if I ask leaders to guess ahead of time, they are only able to predict about half of who these key players are,” he said.

Often the person who is at the centre of a network isn’t the person one would expect, based on the organizational hierarchy. A network analysis of an oil exploration and production company, for example, found an employee who was fairly low down on the organizational chart was at the centre of a network connecting three different divisions — exploration, drilling and production.

When an analysis uncovers this kind of overload on a single person, an organization can shift resources, such as creating more roles, to support that person or function, said Cross.

But the person at the centre also has to be willing to relinquish some of that control and employees need to be willing to go to other sources of information or the reorganization will fail, he added.

One of the reasons senior leaders tend not to be the central person in a network is about 60 per cent to 70 per cent of their trusted ties tend to be located in the department or area where they worked before becoming a leader, said Cross.

“A lot of the information they trust and take action on comes from the people around them,” he said.

When leaders see this in a network analysis, they often realize they need to start turning to more people outside that one area or department and broaden their network.

An analysis also uncovers network outliers — employees who are only connected to one or two people.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion these employees aren’t working or have found a way to “game the system,” said Cross, but about 30 per cent of them will be among an organization’s top performers. For example, they could be high-end scientists or salespeople who tend to work well on their own, without a lot of input from other employees, he said.

Also, newcomers tend to fall into these outlier positions because they haven’t been able to build connections in the network yet.

It’s important for organizations to help these newcomers integrate into the network or they risk losing high-potential employees, said Cross.

“People who get stuck on the edge are about three times more likely to leave than those who are well-connected,” he said.

Organizations can improve these outliers’ connectivity through mentoring and by making targeted introductions between newcomers and those employees who have been identified as trusted ties.

“It has a major impact on the productivity of newcomers and also the likelihood that they’ll stay,” said Cross.

In one analysis, one of the outliers was a high-potential employee the organization had spent three months wooing, said Cross. But once he was hired, the organization placed him in the middle of nowhere and didn’t help him build a network. He left after only a few months with the organization.

Once the key points of connection, and the outliers, have been identified, an organization can arrange more formal connections between the various groups to avoid overloading the small group of employees who have been responsible for a lot of the work.

This way, leaders will also know who the key people are, what information they have that is so valuable to the rest of the organization and figure out how to disseminate that information better throughout the organization.

Those leaders who perform best are almost always the ones who have rebalanced their network and improved connections across the whole organization, said Cross. (See sidebar.)

“The top 20 per cent of performers, it’s not that they have bigger information networks, but they’re more aware of the diversity of expertise and are able to get to it,” he said.

Network 101

How successful leaders balance networks

They manage overload points: Whether these points are the leaders themselves, experts or information gatekeepers, successful leaders will redistribute resources to decrease this overload.

They leverage the periphery: They help newcomers get connected quickly, ensure high performers are not drifting to the edge and give space to the few high performers who need to be on the periphery to do their jobs well.

They bridge select silos: They address breakdowns across function, geography, hierarchy, expertise and projects to create more connections across the network.

They develop the ability to surge: They build an awareness of the different expertise that exists in the network so employees will know whom to turn to for specific information.

They minimize insularity: They reduce overreliance on expertise that was good in the past but may impede innovation going forward and ensure units or geographies aren’t islands.

When networks, talent management intersect

SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

HR: Complex tools, simple principles

By Dave Crisp

You have to admire a network expert you immediately think of as Rob instead of Dr. Cross. One handshake is all it takes but the ideas go far deeper. Lest that seem trivial, consider his topic: How human warmth and connection can unleash business profits.

It’s the true connections within work that make things happen. It was reassuring to hear Cross say a solid 40 or 50 people is better than thousands in your network, that “wallflowers” can be more valuable than “charmers” and that myths about working relationships are often false or misinterpreted by managers in their legitimate search for results. Instead of the fog of opinion based on a few conversations, he favours a simple view of thousands of facts.

Two things really stood out from Cross’s presentation. First, there is real, obvious value in this complex network analysis that couldn’t have been simplified without computers. He can collect enough data with a 15-minute automated survey to fuel weeks of actionable insights. With his system, Cross was able to show instantaneous rearrangements of connections — showing links within national groups globally, first by country, then gender, role, effective versus “energy-sucking” or negative connections and on and on. The ability to slice and dice in so many ways provides amazing insights a management team can use to assess what’s happening and what to fix.

Second, and even more interesting, is the fact the map of connections alone is insufficient to answer burning management questions. You can’t tell just from the charts why one person is highly connected and central in a network and another is isolated. You have to ask, you have to think about the implications and reasons and make judgments about whether those reasons make sense for the business and fit into the strategy, and then decide how you can change them to achieve better results.

Two other insights jump out. First, simple principles of human interaction can be made more visible and useful through complex tools. This is often the dilemma for HR. Managers frequently think they know what they’re seeing — a “great networker” versus a “wallflower,” for instance. Often that’s surface perception only, yet it’s nearly impossible to shake those opinions until you use a tool like this to present undeniable facts. Until then, it’s just line opinion against HR opinion.

The second insight is only tangential to Cross’ content — perhaps today’s frantic networking, with thousands on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, is taking us to a new, higher level. Despite the caution you can overdo the size of networks, he makes the point you have to use judgment to decide. Perhaps we’re training a new generation to pick and choose more accurately, to analyse the deluge of people to find those who have the greatest impact.

Perhaps a complex tool such as this will come into more common use to aid our simple human judgment across these vastly expanded horizons.

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He shows clients how to improve results with better HR management and leadership. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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Understanding performance requires more than organization chart

By Karen Gorsline

Rob Cross demonstrated how to map information flow and collaboration in organizations. Similar to approaches using anthropological or ethnographic techniques, or building research-based competency models, this approach focuses on uncovering the way work really gets done.

These approaches acknowledge the role served by formal organization structure, but also show the organization chart does not reflect the web-like social network and behavioural characteristics in the workplace.

The importance of going beyond perception became particularly apparent in a sample mapping of a social network. There were several individuals who were “hubs,” with many linkages between themselves and others. These individuals played a key role in information-sharing and collaboration. Cross then asked the audience whether people who were hubs were more likely to be extroverted or introverted. Most of the audience believed these individuals were extroverts. However, experience in mapping social networks shows an equal distribution. There is a tendency for extroverts to reach out more and for introverts to be sought out by others. These introverts may be “hidden gems” and organizations may be unaware of the role they play.

What are some of the key implications of this single learning for organizations?

• In making decisions regarding talent management, organizations traditionally look at: critical roles and backups, leadership succession and individuals seen as having high potential. Organizations unaware of network hubs and how they function are vulnerable to poor planning and talent management decisions. If the hub has developed around an introvert, the organization may not recognize the talent and role played in innovation and collaboration.

• When reorganizing or downsizing, these quiet players — who are not traditional high-performers — may be disrupted from their hub role or may not feel valued and leave the organization. The resulting breakdown in communication that follows is seen as puzzling or a change-management issue, but was predictable if the social network was better understood.

• Those in hub roles who are acknowledged high performers may become overloaded and burn out, leaving those in HR wondering what happened to the rising star. Understanding these individuals do “double duty” in their role puts the overload in perspective so strategies to manage these situations can be developed.

• Social networks take time to build and maintain. A rapid succession of organizational changes without regard to information flows and collaboration channels is a recipe for chaos and dysfunction until they re-establish themselves.

• Work expectations and the definition of efficiency need to recognize the role hubs play in fostering innovation and collaboration.

So what’s the opportunity? Understand how organizations can connect people to hubs and connect hubs to other hubs to support strategic objectives

The challenge is understanding whether a hub is contributing to strategic objectives or is ineffective and diverting valuable resources.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored human resource initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at

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Social networks provide opportunity to improve performance

By Tom Tavares

Social networks are about much more than talent management. Rob Cross addressed an issue fundamental to business management: Social networks improve innovation, alignment and speed in decision-making. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, these three factors play an increasingly central role in both operational performance and competitive positioning.

As Cross pointed out, high performers develop open networks to minimize insularity, speed the flow of information, extend and leverage expertise and uncover opportunities to have an impact. In building networks, more is not necessarily better. It is the quality, not the quantity, of connections that differentiates effective and ineffective working relationships. As the pace of change quickens, managing networks systematically increases speed and flexibility in adapting to shifting markets.

However, in most organizations, the quality of interaction declines as the pace of change accelerates. As issues become more complex, the backlog of internal problems builds. This leads to bottlenecks, increasing insularity and sluggish decision-making.

The quality of interaction in networks is intangible and easy to overlook. As a result, many companies only attend to it when the impact of neglect interferes with operations. This is unfortunate because social networks represent an enormous opportunity to improve performance. When managed systematically, overloads are prevented, newcomers get connected, high performers stay engaged and insularity is reduced.

The approach used by Cross is interesting because it provides a framework for both managing the organization and developing individuals. His analytic tool makes networks visible. Because most business leaders are more oriented to tangible problems that can be quantified, his software is a real benefit in helping to focus on this hidden performance factor.

From the perspective of the individual, the quality of interaction provides a model for self-development. People who are positive, listen actively, value others, show concern, are flexible in their thinking and consistent in following through tend to have a much higher impact than others. Their behaviour promotes satisfaction, energizes people and increases creativity.

The reality of how networks function deviates from organizational structure and formal authorities. From the perspective of HR, it is interesting only about 30 per cent of key personnel in networks appear in top talent lists. From a management perspective, it is significant many business leaders consider the quality of interaction to be a “soft” issue and neglect it.

How long will it take before the quality of interaction is seen for what it is — a critical, systemic factor in business performance, especially as the pace of change accelerates?

Tom Tavares is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on organizational effectiveness and a senior organizational psychologist. In addition to managing in large corporations, consulting in varied industries and coaching executives, he has written extensively about the relationship between business performance, behaviour and change. He can be reached at

Next executive series

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May (double event): Building a talent strategy that endures market volatility, with Sanjiv Kumar, and highlights of the HRPS annual global conference, with a panel of members, May 28.

June: Business relationships — why good strategies go bad and what you can do about it, with Diana McLain Smith, June 18.

July: Beyond the deal — how to really make it work, with Hubert Saint-Onge, July 15.

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