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.