Informal Networks and How They Are Changing the World of Work


By Francis Marshall, Cegos UK

Informal networks articleFrancis Marshall looks at the growth of informal networks and the impact these are having on the world of work.
  •  The growth of informal networks in the software industry and their applicability for L&D.
  • The benefits and challenges of informal networks within L&D.
  • The key prerequisites for success.

With meteoric rise of the use of social media, we all know the vital role networks play today in bringing people together as well as making certain individuals extraordinary amounts of money!

Such networks redefine communities, geography and identity; are formed around shared interests (news, entertainment and other stories often break on social media well before they are seen on traditional news channels); and enable communication and knowledge sharing like never before. They also have a crucial role to play in how we work and how we learn.

Let’s take a step back first, however, and look how business-focused information-driven networks have evolved over the last two decades. And no, this article isn’t another article about Facebook and Twitter!

It was in the 1990’s that informal networks, formed around software development, began to gather pace.

There was a feeling that, instead of a focus on processes, contracts and documentation, closer collaboration was needed between software programmers and business experts within tight, self-organizing and cross-functional teams. This was later articulated in the Agile Manifesto, a statement of values developed by a group of software developers in 2001 and which introduced the term ‘agile software development’ to the modern business lexicon.

The manifesto stated that individuals and interactions should be valued more than processes and tools; collaborative technology valued over documentation; cooperation and engagement with the end user should receive priority over contract negotiations; and that the ability to respond to change should be valued more highly than following existing plans.

Another informal network that grew out of agile software development was the Scrum Alliance, a not-for-profit professional membership organisation that in the Alliance’s own words “is an agile approach to managing complex problems.” 

This approach consists of  delivering the highest business value in the shortest possible time; is based around self-organizing teams that create an agile environment for delivering projects; and a comprehensive support network, including an Internet blog, where questions can be asked and reassurance provided. Today, the Scrum Alliance has over 350,000 global members and provides 4,500 courses on the Scrum Approach worldwide.

So what can we take from such networks when creating the learning environment of the future? What can we learn from software developers and their focus on agility and empowerment?

Such models can have immediate applicability to the world of work where collaboration, when done well, can help organizations and teams become more agile, flexible and adaptable to change.

Benefits of informal networks in the application of L&D include their ability to increase the levels of empowerment among learners; the ability to create a highly interactive feedback loop where a continuous stream of feedback can be provided – more so than they would be ever likely to receive within the organisations they work for; and the opportunity for sharing best practices across companies and countries. The informal learning network model can also be particularly beneficial for particular types of workers, such as remote teams.

Finally, there is the benefit of cost. At a time of declining training budgets, the emergence of highly cost effective informal networks has come just at the right time. While these networks should never be seen simply as a vehicle for cutting budgets, it’s clear that they have the ability to deliver significant investment returns. With as little as 10% of learning occurring through formal development and yet up to 80% of L&D budgets spent in this area (Source: The People Bulletin), there certainly is a compelling case for a realignment of priorities.

Driven by the proliferation of new technology platforms, such as Web 2.0 and now 3.0, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc, today there are a host of informal learning networks. Examples include the eLearning Network, a source for guidance and future trends in technology-based learning; and 12Manager, an executive network on management methods, models and concepts.

However, challenges remain in their successful incorporation into L&D. One such example is the fact that SMEs are much more adept at embracing informal networks than larger organizations, probably due to their leaner and more flexible structures.

There are also issues over the relevance and appropriateness of content learners access through informal networks. How can you be sure that such information and expertise will contribute to your company’s culture and ways of doing things?

Finally, there is the issue of information overload. How can we ensure that the information learners receive through informal networks is benefitting rather than hindering them?

While there’s no single answer to these challenges, there are a number of ways in which you can improve your chances of success.

Firstly, HR & L&D professionals need to not only be aware of such networks but experience them. Try them out for yourselves. Ask if your employees are using such networks (you may not know if they are or not). How useful do they find them?

L&D professionals also must allow the learners to drive informal network initiatives and continue to lead the learning experience. How can we help learners utilise these network and continue to enjoy them? What about enhanced software to make it easier for learners to engage?

Finally, any embracing of informal networks must inevitably lead to a culture change within organisations. There needs to be a shift away from processes and tools towards individuals and interactions. This requires buy-on from both managers and line managers and a focus on different routes for communications throughout the organisation.

Our challenge, as L&D managers, is to capture the same spirit of innovation and collaboration that has been demonstrated by the software community but ensure that this sits comfortably within our current organisational strategy. Get this right and we will be changing the world of work as we know it.



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