Promoting professional networks at work
A year and a half ago I switched jobs from one UN agency to another. Something that became immediately obvious to me in making this switch was the importance of professional networks in getting your work done.
On the one hand I found myself a bit at sea not knowing who to contact for what, who has expert knowledge, who has inside gossip, who has great ideas, or even who can tell me what the rule is on X – making things a lot slower going. On the other hand I was lucky in that as someone working on knowledge management who had invested some time in getting to know counterparts in other agencies, I already had a few contacts who I could ask to give me pointers on who to ask, so I didn’t need to start totally from scratch.
In general when you join a UN agency (or to my memory any of the other public administrations I’ve worked in) there is relatively little support to newcomers for them to build their professional networks. You might get to attend an orientation course where you meet other people in the same position as you – great for moral support and experience sharing but not so great for getting the insider knowledge that you will need for your job. You might get taken around the floor to be briefly introduced to your colleagues – but then it’s often up to you to take the next step. If you are lucky, your boss will suggest a few people you should get to know. In most cases that’s it.
Why don’t organizations do more? I think it’s partly because the value of networks in our work is hidden and so we are rarely conscious of it as being an important enabler to our work. Networking is seen as something social and intangible or even unproductive and we are encouraged to be task focused i.e. don’t waste time chatting, get back to work!
Yet in practice networks are critical to quickly getting answers and advice for individuals. But they are also of benefit to the organization itself. Not only do they allow staff to be more efficient and to learn from one another – but they also provide an unofficial source of “help-desk” support, as well as being a store of institutional memory. This interesting post from orgnet looks at what happens when someone leaves an organization and how their absence is felt across the organization through their network.
But what can organizations do to help?
The first step is to think about networking and networks when hiring in the first place. Firstly hire people with good skills in networking (they will need them). secondly consider someone’s existing network more explicitly when hiring – e.g. someone hired from a similar role internally might already have a large part of the network they will need and can get up to speed much more quickly, but someone from outside might be able to bring in new external contacts which will help enrich the current work.
The next step would be in induction and onboarding. Individual managers need to encourage new staffers to take the time to meet and get to know people they will need to collaborate with both inside and outside the immediate office or department, and they also need to be prepared to advise them on who to met and to help facilitate introductions. At an organizational level, building communities of other newcomers is helpful, but this can also be usefully supplemented by partnering new staff with buddies who have experience in the organization who can give advice and help make introductions. Including networking skills as part of management/leadership training might also be a positive step.
On a day-to-day basis it’s also important for offices to organize regular occasions where people can meet and get to know each other outside formal meetings. This could be through social gatherings but could also include more interactive working formats such as regular “stand up” meetings or town halls or retreats.
Many organizations also have thematic communities of practice or have social business platforms (such as UNDP’s Teamworks). These can play an important role in encouraging staff to make professional connections in the workplace including across functions and locations. But having the platforms or communities isn’t enough in itself, staff need to be trained and encouraged to use them, and perhaps more importantly community facilitators need to help encourage connections to be made through approaches such as introducing and profiling new members, encouraging/badgering staff to complete their profiles and upload photos, organizing virtual and face to face events and helping broker one on one connections between people with shared interests who are not yet in touch. Of importance in this is to encourage people to follow other people rather than just communities or topics. It’s also useful to recognize that people will also use other tools such as twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn as networking tools and to encourage and support that rather than to trying to only support people to do this through corporate tools – this is particularly important as professional networks should include people both inside and outside the organization.
Other KM approaches such as self-assess/peer assists and knowledge fairs are also underutilized tools for promoting growth of personal networks.
Finally there is always space for some novel approaches. I really like this example from Nesta – Randomized Coffee Trials, where staff who sign up are assigned to have coffee with another random staff member every week without any fixed agenda. The results were much strengthened contacts between different teams, but also a greater number of new projects where different teams collaborated.
What tips do you have for promoting stronger professional networks in the workplace?