This week’s curator Livio Hughes considers the importance of social structures and the role of people networks, guide networks and ESNs inside our organisations.

Here at Post*Shift, we have long believed that being ‘networked’ is a key attribute of modern, adaptive organisations. People networks provide a lateral, emergent organising principle alongside top-down hierarchy and fixed communities of practice, and there is so much evidence (both in the literature and in practice) for their power, effectiveness and resilience, when utilised in the right business context, that it is surprising to see so little attention still being paid to them by the leaders of global companies.

If there is a silver lining to the Facebook scandal, it is that it has forced a re-evaluation of what it means to be connected on social networks (and why we need to get better at social system design, as Lee Bryant recently argued). Inside companies, people networks can be leveraged to identify and locate expertise, help solve problems, disperse knowledge throughout the organisation, and create new pathways and connections that make work more efficient. But who are the right people to engage? What are their skills? And what is their motivation to actively support their employers in achieving their business objectives?

For a while, enterprise social networks seemed to offer a shortcut to the answers: if everyone is connected on a platform we own, we should be able to identify the right people, network nodes and work behaviours that we can encourage – the rest is all about training, content, messaging and community management, or so the thinking went (this is why internal comms, and occasionally HR, were given responsibility for running these platforms in most large companies).

In reality, network dynamics in large firms are more complex and unpredictable than this, which is partly why so many ESN implementations have failed. Those that have succeeded (such as Bosch) have one thing in common: in addition to engaging leaders in the process and investing heavily in all the right platform hygiene factors, they have worked hard to identify and develop an offline network of highly engaged, energetic, digitally-savvy people to help drive adoption, transfer skills, and spread good practices, which is also reflected in their online network participation.

As my colleague Cerys Hearsey has argued, these people networks – we call them ‘digital guides’ – are not just ‘champions’ of the new, more collaborative behaviours firms need to develop. They are the individuals who pull the organisation into new directions through daily practice. Digital guides can hold this role officially, by being nominated or volunteering for a specific business-led change, but very often they do not play this role purely out of intention. Instead, it is part of their personal make-up: they are intrinsically motivated to make a difference where they work, whether they have been given an official title for it or not. If an organisation is not ready for this, intrinsically-motivated digital guides can be seen as disrupters, outliers or even worse, troublemakers. It is no coincidence that some of the large firms we have researched end up firing these people (or making impossible for them to stay), rather than regard them as ‘high potential’ future leaders of a new, flatter, more connected business.

To ensure these guide networks fulfil their potential, they also need the support of strong leaders, providing ‘air cover’ for their activities and being active themselves in driving the digital change strategy forward. These senior leaders also benefit from being organised into a ‘guiding coalition’, and from interacting with the digital guides in ways that complement and reinforce each network’s knowledge, skills, value, and understanding of the digital tasks at hand.

We have developed a set of criteria and techniques to identify, institute, train and support digital guides networks, and we have helped many companies to put these in place as part of their Digital Workplace strategy. If you are interested in this topic, please come along to our free Future of the Digital Workplace event on 5th July, when we will be discussing how these ideas can work in practice alongside other, more tech-focussed approaches, and sharing the experience of a group of senior practitioners in this field (but please hurry as we only have a couple of places left).

Meanwhile, here are some links I have enjoyed while thinking about the power of enterprise people networks: