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Change Networks

Don't forget the network!

One of the normal challenges we nearly all face is too many demands on our time. Work always takes longer than planned, our diary is often filled with appointments, meetings and work that take up time against deadlines, our social calendar chews up some of our time and our web based social networks are forever sending us invitations to events that we have no chance or desire to attend.

Why am I discussing time 'management' problems when the topic mentions networks?  Note to self - we can't manage time but we can manage what we do.

For people who are 'achievers' and natural introverts, one of the first things that occurs when they feel under 'time stress' is that they tend to focus on what they can do themselves.  That means that they stop networking, because they see networking as just extra activity rather than a core activity. That is less likely with natural extroverts who see the network as vital to their self image and therefore a natural part of their work and personal life. This has both personal and organizational cultural aspects.

Hence I arrive at the theme of this article "don't forget the network". If we have built or are part of a valuable network, it can help us on several levels. I will describe some of these shortly, but first what is a 'valuable network'?

This comes down to what we consider to be valuable to us. If we need practical advice, then the network should be oriented towards being a Community of Practice (CoP) - for example I am a member of ActKM - a web based community focused on Knowledge Management, based in the Australian Capital Territory (hence the 5 letter acronym). Here practitioners pose questions, discuss topics, argue about fundamentals and definitions on the topic of knowledge management. We all groan when the next PhD student comes along and asks us to participate in a survey because generally they are poorly constructed (one person lets their 6 year old answer them as a covert protest but most of us ignore them). One of my other networks is the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), the US based but world wide community of eponymous engineers. The IEEE is not just a CoP but more a professional and academic network with a large publication range from standards to magazines covering nearly every possible e&e discipline. XING is another network with less clearly defined occupational value, as it covers all occupations. It does provide a social and a quasi-professional platform, but I see its main value as a sort of marketing (read self interest) promotion and connection  network.

How can a network help us?

  • First as mentioned above, a network can provide us with the means to ask for and receive practical advice on our particular problems or challenges (practical).
  • Second a network can give us an opportunity to share what we know and learn from others (educational, community of interest).
  • Third a network can help us mitigate burdens imposed by others (emotional dispersion).
  • Fourth a network can broaden our perspective from our professional standpoint to include related viewpoints (expansive, community of purpose).
  • Fifth a network can  take us into areas we have not previously considered at all (explorative).
  • Sixth a network can just be for plain fun (emotional release).

If we consider web popularity, the sixth network is the most popular, but my intent here is to explore the managerial and leadership aspects of the first five points.

One of the most common habits we have is to rely on our experience and past 'proven' solutions to problems. When our managerial context and the situation (organization, persons, problem domain) remain the same, this is normally the quickest and best way to solve problems. When our situation changes, then it often leads to incomplete or worse to incorrect solutions.

One of the most common challenges we have is learning to discard outdated/outmoded practices and solutions and learn new ones. I face this challenge daily as roll out project manager for an initiative bringing major change to the way IT is being developed. Many of the people I am dealing with cannot acknowledge their past performance was poor, and there is a need to improve. The group of roll out managers I am working with have varying levels of resistance to change. The new persons to the company are embracing change and are advanced in the roll out to their business units, while the long employed  (let us call them the resisters, who form the majority of the group) are resisting change or are at best lethargic about implementing change. In some cases this reflects the dominant position of people they are dealing with.

Basic concepts of quality and management seems foreign to many of the persons involved. I constantly have to reevaluate their level of knowledge and their level of acceptance to what is best practice as known outside the organization. Early on I tried publishing an article highlighting best practices from industry experts - it was mostly ignored. My perception is that the resisters think "we know what is best and what works, you are just being theoretical".  Since they have not experienced best practice, they seem incapable of conceiving what it could bring as benefit. They like to state that they are embracing best practice, but what I see is at best good practice or just what I consider standard practice, certainly not best practice. My next tactic was to circulate a report from another part of the organization showing actual performance in a critical area (requirements analysis). The results show a large opportunity for improvement. Again it was mostly ignored. While I understand that bad news is never welcome, most people did not see this as an opportunity to more strongly promote improvement. 

Since the group is a network and not an organization, I have to employ network related techniques to try to bring about change. This limits the possible choices to implement change. Basic methods covering people process product apply. Leadership and management principles can be followed with adaptation. While team based approaches can help, with a geographically dispersed and organizationaly dispersed group that is not a true team, these have some restrictions on application. Applying several aspects of STARS will bring benefits.

I will now pose a challenge rather than answers.

Send me what you recommend for implementing change in networked organizations.

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