The Employee Network: to Keep or Not to Keep Under the Radar

Topic: Organizational PerformanceChange Management
Publication: Harvard Business Review (MAR 2010)
Article: Harnessing your staff’s informal networks
Authors: R. McDermott, D. Archibald
Reviewed by: Liz Brashier

Communities of practice are voluntary, informal employee networks where experts
can share knowledge and information, and it’s in these groups that employees form innovative solutions to real organizational problems. While in the past, these informal networks have succeeded on their own, this is no longer the case; these networks function best when they have management on board. McDermott and Archibald (2010) examine the status of communities of practice at companies including Pfizer, Fluor, and Conoco Phillips, and have concrete directions for guiding the once under-the-radar employee network.

The authors provide principles to lead management in designing effective communities, though these sound like no-brainers: 1) focus on important issues for the organization, 2) establish goals, 3) provide governance, and 4) set high management expectations. Maybe harnessing these communities isn’t too challenging after all! A differentiation that is a bit more interesting is one that the authors make between communities and teams. As managers, it is easy to view these groups as one in the same, even though they’re not.

Communities focus on long-term issues, peer collaboration, and knowledge
, while teams focus on short-term deliverables and problems. The authors also offer suggestions for maximizing community impact. So, while communities of practice – and the solutions that come with them – used to be free and self-governing, they now need structure and guidance to maintain expert contributions to their organizations. Just as the business world has become more complex, so has the (informal) employee network.

McDermott, R. & Archibald, D. (2010). Harnessing your staff’s informal networks. Harvard Business Review, 88(2), 82-89.