Communicating Diagonally: New Value Pathways via Enterprise Social Networking?

Diagonal communication

One of the keystone value claims for implementing an Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) platform like Yammer, Jive or IBM Connect is facilitating horizontal communication paths across the enterprise. Traditional organisational hierarchies have proven to be poorly suited to sharing information and knowledge sideways, as designed communication pathways at the base of the hierarchy would have information move vertically upward before moving across and then downward to its waiting audience. A lot can happen to an intended message as it makes this tortuous path, often resulting in a poor communication result.

But what about “Diagonal Communication”? By this we mean communication paths that connect leaders of business units to non-leaders of other business units and visa versa, as shown by the dashed diagonal pathways below.
Diagonal structure

A natural response would suggest a potential undermining of the leaders’ authority i.e. if I as business leader, were found to be communicating directly with a staff member of another business unit, would this be disrespecting that member’s own business unit leader? Likewise, if as a non-leader, I seek to communicate directly with a leader of another business unit; am I disrespecting my own business unit leader by not involving them in the communication? It is this reticence that no doubt hinders this style of communication in traditional hierarchical organisations; arguably at some cost to the organisation.

Recently we completed an analysis of collaboration patterns with a major financial services company by analysing the usage logs of their ESN (Yammer). The objective was to understand the value being gained to date by applying our social networking analytic measures. Because this was a ‘relationships centred’ analysis, we aimed to go beyond the simple usage traffic measures and only include connections where a true reciprocal interaction had occurred i.e. to be included in our analysis a specific two-way interaction between two individuals had to have occurred to produce a link. As anticipated, the horizontal collaboration paths across internal business units were indeed prominent, but perhaps the bigger surprise was the size of the diagonal communication paths: 

Diag Comms Table

The results indicated that the diagonal linkages were nearly three times the number of the vertical, within business unit, connections. One can only speculate as to why. Perhaps the ESN was seen to give license for this form of informal communication, without the concerns attached to more formal communication. Perhaps it is a response to such  ‘protocol’ constraints by releasing a pent-up demand for communicating diagonally in a more timely fashion; with the knowledge that the formal channels can be enacted should the communication escalate to something significant.

Whatever the reason there is significant value to be gained though opening up diagonal channels of communication. Firstly, the opportunity to accelerate more radical enterprise innovations. Radical innovations typically result from the bringing together of inputs across a diversity of sources, like other business units. Formal channels can kill off an innovation opportunity simply through its bureaucratic nature. Secondly, organisational politics can result in mixed messages as communications move up and down a hierarchy. Diagonal communication can open up a more open and active narrative across the organisation, leading to more informed and responsive decision-making. Last but not least, ESNs, by opening up informal diagonal channels of communication, while potentially not undermining the formal channels; allows organisations to get the best of both worlds: Social + Business.

Book Review: “Networked: The New Social Operating System” – Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman

Holiday breaks are a good time to catch up on your reading and I had put this one aside for just that. I won’t be offering a full chapter-by-chapter review as I’m sure that has been done elsewhere. This is more of a personal reflection. Having spent considerable time researching in field of Social Network Analysis (SNA), Barry Wellman was well known to me. We have never met face-to-face but I had met up with a number of his Netlab colleagues at a couple of INSA Sunbelt conferences. My first recollection of Wellman’s work goes back to some of his early pre-Internet research on electronically facilitated communications and the social network.  Even then there was the fear that such communication technology could lead to de-socialization with less face-to-face contact and a subsequent loss of community.  Wellman argued then that rather than replacing face-to-face socialization, collaborative technologies would actually lead to people meeting up more than they did before and with a broader circle of connections. This counter-intuitive theme continues to run through the book, with Rainie’s Pew Internet research results and Wellman’s networking research providing plenty of factual supporting evidence.

Rainie and Wellman focus on anther apparent contradiction that they refer to as “Networked Individualism”. One of the claims made that did catch my attention is that the authors believe that the networked world has matured to the extent that groups and communities are no longer a prime focus. Individuals will belong to multiple groups and communities of practice; and will therefore share their attention amongst such groups as their individual need or context demands, at any given time.  The focus has therefore moved from the group to the individual. The onus is therefore now on the individual to learn how to navigate their networks for personal benefit, rather than relying on group or community leaders. When I look at my own use of Linkedin groups I would have to agree. Some groups I lurk in just to get a sense of what is important to that community. I can move in and out of such groups as the context demands. Others that I am closer to, I will more actively participate on a regular basis.

The other key theme from the book is what the authors call the triple revolution: Social Network, Internet and Mobile. While the authors go to some pains to say the book is not about technology, it is hard not to see these revolutions as technology driven. I’m not sure that is matters. Having spent most of my career at the leading/bleeding edge of technology, for me there was nothing particularly new or novel that I hadn’t read about before, though Rainie’s Pew Internet Research added some additional colour to the coverage. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy reading about how these technologies have evolved over the past 20 years or more. Like me, I suspect the authors entered the workforce before e-mail was invented in the 1970s. Reading about how that first email was sent, how hypertext and the first Internet browser was developed and our first mobile phones, which were the size and weight the equivalent of a house brick, made me reflect on just how fortunate one has been to have lived and worked through such an exciting era of technological change. The authors talk about how individuals are now equipped with smart phones which equips them to operate effectively as a networked individual. I can recall on my first day at work of being impressed with having my own telephone on my desk! Of course it could only ring in and out internally (does this sound like some Enterprise Social Networking implementations?).

One area I was particularly looking for was networking ‘at work’. We hear a lot about networking in the ‘friends and family’ space, but enterprise networking provides a whole new suite of challenges. A single chapter is devoted to ‘Networked Work’. Again the historical story telling made it an interesting read. Even if it was not perhaps new to me it will interest those wanting to understand how networking is changing the world of work. The Boeing examples of their networked approach to airplane design provide good and instructive reading. One point that did stand out however is that collaborative technologies have not reduced the need for business travel and face-to-face connections. In fact the opposite has happened; reinforcing the theme identified earlier in that the technology is not replacing the need to connect in person, but is actually facilitating more face-to-face connections. If anything this book is not short of supporting facts and figures.

 Finally the book is full of anecdotes from Wellman’s Gen Y students. In fact some of his students helped co-write some of the chapters. One of the insights I gained from some of the Gen Y voices was how they were using social networking technologies mostly to organize face-to-face meet-ups. These interactions were often short, sharp and multi-modal i.e. text, voice, IM etc.. These examples reinforce Wellman’s long-term theme that the collaborative technologies are not replacing face-to-face communications, but augmenting and expanding it.

I see some common threads here with research by MIT’s Sandy Pentland on high performance teams and Tom Allen’s research on communications and physical separation. Additionally it also provides some comfort for me in explaining some of our initial work in developing a ‘give/receive’ social analytic measure based on Pentland’s work. Pentland found that the most productive teams have balanced short and sharp interactions. As we were developing our metrics we noted that many of these supposedly highly productive conversations were around organising meet-ups. Our initial thoughts were that we shouldn’t really count these; but after having read this book, perhaps the most productive thing that we can do is to organise a meetup!

Choosing a path – topdown vs network

pathWhich path to follow?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post called The Network of Cities and Organisations about Dave Troy’s Peoplemaps initiative. After having spoken about how cities can be viewed as networks and how we can get new insights using this perspective, Troy finishes his TED Talk with these words: “We have the ability to reshape our cities in a new way: Let’s do it.”

My message was the network perspective also provides new insights into how organisations work, and that we should do the same with our organisations. But how do we reshape our organisations? Is there anything we can learn from urban planners who have been analysing cities as networks?

Assistant Professor Zachary Neal of Psychology at Michigan State University (@zpneal) has written extensively about cities as networks and how we can reshape these. When Neal applies the network lense to cities, each element (or node) in the network is a destination, eg. a library, and streets/paths connect these.

 In his book The Connected City[1] Neal refers to three guidelines for optimum city design:

  1. Build connections between nodes that are different but complementary (e.g. neighbourhood to shopping mall is better than shopping mall to shopping mall)
  2. Consider the scale of the network as we don’t want to walk too far (don’t make us drive everywhere)
  3. Streets/sidewalks are expensive to build and maintain. Only construct when they are truly useful (vs. decorative).

Neal then makes this important point:

 “ …cities should be designed in the specific order that makes them liveable: first define the location of the green spaces and pedestrian areas, then design the network of pedestrian paths, and finally arrange the buildings and streets. This has been the process for many older cities, but newer cities are often built in the opposite order, leading to networks that are good for cars, but bad for people.”

Many organisations seem to be designed just like ‘newer cities’. First the business units and reporting lines (‘buildings and streets’) are determined. Then dotted reporting lines (‘pedestrian paths’) are created to increase coordination, and finally  – maybe – collaborative tools/cultures are considered (‘green spaces and pedestrian areas’).  

This way of designing organisations may have been useful in the past but it is not anymore. Decisions need to be made faster than what can be accomplished when the organisation is designed from a hierarchical top down perspective.  It is on this new reality that The Responsive Organisation initiative was formed. Their manifesto[2] outlines the transition that must happen from the old to the new ‘responsive’ organisations:



  • Efficiencies
  • Responsiveness
  • Hierarchies
  • Networks
  • Controlling
  • Empowering
  • Extrinsic Rewards
  • Intrinsic Motivation
  • Office and Office Hours
  • Anywhere and Anytime
  • Customers and Partners
  • Community

When we empower people to determine with whom, when and where collaboration has to happen, things happen a lot faster. This brings me back to the city-as-a-network analogy and another quote from Neal:

“Frequently in parks, or on college campuses, although there are many sidewalks, there will be a few well-worn paths through the grass. These informal paths show where people really want to go, and where the paths should have been located in the first place.”

To be responsive we must ensure that a collaborative culture supported by collaborative tools is at the centre. The way the organisation is structured will always be playing catch-up to present day needs. People know how to get things done fast. Don’t let hierarchies get in the way.

(Also read my post on Network Leadership inspired by the efficiencies of roundabouts to get traffic moving)

[1] Neal, Z. “The connected city.” How Networks are Shaping the Modern Metropolis. London and New York: Routledge (2012).