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Research: 5 Kinds Of Social Networks Needed In (Self-Managing) Organisations

Åsa Jonsson
Written by Åsa Jonsson May 23, 2020

Social capital and social networks are becoming increasingly important in today’s economy at large, and for individuals within organisations. For my MSc dissertation in Organisational Psychology, I researched how newcomers transition into a self-managing organisation (Lee & Edmondson, 2017), an organisation where authority is decentralised and classic manager-subordinate relationships are absent.

The findings reveal that the newcomers’ social networks are central to the adjustment process. However, it is not just any big network that is important for new organisational members to adapt to their novel environment. Rather, novices build networks with different purposes within the organisation, networks that then support adjustment in different ways. This article describes these networks and how organisations can support the networking process.

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When organisational structures become more fluid and network-like, newcomers are no longer socialised to perform predefined roles represented by boxes in pyramid-shaped organisational charts. Self-managed organising in particular requires newcomers to learn to live with and operate in ever developing, often ambiguous, organisations. At the same time, work is increasingly becoming an avenue for self-expression rather than (or in addition to) a means for survival. Furthermore, organisations in today’s knowledge economy are dependent on individuals passionately contributing with their personal competence. These circumstances mean that adjustment no longer entails being taught to reproduce organisational status quo by learning the tasks of a predefined role. Such an approach would neither serve an organisation that wishes to continue evolving, would not be sufficient to equip the newcomer to navigate, nor would it likely fulfill the individual’s desire for self-expression. How then, do newcomers adjust to a self-managing organisation? And how can organisations support the process?

I set out to answer these questions by studying the onboarding in a self-managing, Swedish-founded IT-consulting firm (1200 employees). In summary, I found that at the core of the adjustment process are:

  1. the newcomer’s strive to acquire a sense of belonging to the organisation and an understanding of its structures and culture; and
  2. the newcomer’s process of crafting a role that aligns personal ambitions with the organisation’s purpose.

Most interestingly, these two processes are enabled by resources inherent in social networks that the newcomers build. The social networks can be conceptualised as five networks with different purposes, and aligns with the organisational social networks described by Hatmaker (2015). Each of the networks serves a role in helping the newcomer adjust to their new setting. I describe these networks below, as well as how organisations can help their newcomers to become full-fledged organisational members by facilitating the networking process.

Advice network

“...where you have people that you know like ‘this person is awesome at this, I can turn to that person for that’.” (Philip, Consultant)

Working life in today’s society often entails continuous learning and novel challenges. Therefore, to complement personal competence, it is vital that the newcomers build advice networks: networks that can provide advice for problem-solving related to work tasks. At TechCo, the organisation which I researched, employees expressed that the knowledge and experience of their colleagues was available to them through network connections. Hence, newcomers built the capacity to take on new and challenging assignments not only by learning new skills but also by connecting with others with relevant competence.

Developmental network

”…it is with my mentor that I have created my career plan for the coming year and also beyond. And we had like a dialogue about it before I started at TechCo. We started talking about it ‘ok, what shall we focus on, what..’ or actually she asked what I want. And in fact she hasn’t given me any answers, rather she has coached me to come up with it myself.” (Philip, Consultant)

When classic manager-subordinate relationships are replaced by network ties, individuals themselves become more responsible for how they want to develop, and for realising this goal. To facilitate this, newcomers are helped by a developmental network: a network of individuals who promote the newcomer’s career development or function as role models.

In addition to the formal mentorship that the initial quote illustrates, my participants described how informal role models both modeled potential development in terms of task-related skills and contribution to the organisation’s culture.

“…he has become a role model for me when it comes to helping others. Even if he has worked here many more years than me and sits with significantly bigger projects [...]it felt as if he really took time to help me.” (John, consultant)

Furthermore, to realise their ambitions, newcomers described the importance of forming relationships with people who can promote their career development. At TechCo, relationships with people working with sales are valued, since they function as brokers in project allocation and can therefore have a significant impact on how the consultants’ careers develop.

“then it becomes very much to talk to sales. So that they know what you want and what you can do. Because in the end they are the ones coming with assignments and who gets the proposals, so it becomes important that they are thinking about you.” (Alexander, consultant)

Research: 5 Kinds of Social Networks Needed in Self-Managing Organisations
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Social support network

“So I called her [mentor] immediately when I got the message and kind of started crying. It was like 'aah what have I done wrooong?'. She just said "no, you haven't done anything wrong" (Lena, Consultant)

Being new in an organisation can be stressful, and my participants talked about the importance of having a social support network: individuals that they felt comfortable discussing sensitive matters with. This network was often comprised of the newcomer’s formal mentor and some trusted colleague(s).

In particular, having relationships with people who had entered the organisation at the same time was described as very valuable. By fostering relationships with peers who had a similar tenure, the newcomers felt that they could more freely discuss their experiences.

“it is very valuable to talk with people in the same situation. It doesn't have to be 'one teaches the other'. Rather, it is valuable to just chat with someone in the same situation. So I think it was when I started doing that, and you can relate to each other and you have the same feelings and you are from the same background and have the same challenges as well. It became very valuable. In a completely different way. My mentor can guide me from a senior perspective, and the same with [coach at the assignment]. But they don't feel like 'oh, I feel so small and I'm expected to deliver'. Those feelings I could discuss better with someone on the same level.” (Amanda, consultant)

Friendship network

“it makes my employment so much more fun. That I come here and feel at home.” (Jonas, consultant)

To develop a sense of belonging and identification with the organisation, the participants expressed the importance of finding people they could relate to beyond work. In other words, growing a friendship network. This was especially true for newcomers who had moved from another city to work at TechCo. These participants emphasised the value that friends within the organisation had for their general wellbeing. Newcomers described the way in which, through TechCo, they found people with common interests and hobbies. Getting to know these people outside work had subsequent benefits for how the newcomers experienced their work situation, particularly in terms of experiencing an increased sense of belonging.

Organisational information network

“we talk a lot about acquiring perspectives. If you have a very homogenous or similar group that you are talking with you risk to just get one perspective of TechCo. So having different relationships is super important. Definitely. So that you see TechCo from different viewpoints and give yourself the conditions and opportunities to explore, see new parts and find new things to do.” (Anders, Talent Manager)

The newcomers expressed that the best way to understand how the organisation worked was simply by talking to people. Despite the intranet’s provision of descriptions of principles and processes, it was primarily through interpersonal interaction and by experience sharing that the newcomers gained an understanding of how to navigate the organisational reality. Furthermore, it was acknowledged that the organisation was too big and complex for one person to overview or for a written description to capture. Therefore, employees with longer tenure expressed the importance of newcomers growing a diverse organisational information network. Networks were also described as superior to static descriptions in the sense that the information they give access to is always up to date.

From uncertainty reduction to resource building

My findings suggest viewing the socialisation process in a self-managing organisation as a resource building process, where the newcomers acquire resources necessary for adjustment by building social networks.

Previous research on organisational socialisation is dominated by a perspective that conceptualises socialisation as a process of uncertainty reduction, where newcomers seek to make their work environment understandable, predictable and ultimately controllable (Bauer, Bodner, Erdogan & Tucker, 2007; Saks & Gruman, 2018). Organisational tactics and newcomer proactivity are considered means by which uncertainty is reduced. This approach is sensible in the context of teaching an individual how to fulfill satisfactorily a predefined role in a static managerial hierarchy.

However, today’s working life requires newcomers to learn to live with and operate in ever-developing organisations. Rather than learn how to control their environment, understand how to perform a predefined role, and ‘reproduce organisational status quo’, newcomers are expected to define how they want to contribute to the organisation with their interests and skills, and craft ways to do so. In this process, they not only seek to reduce uncertainty, but also to build resources that make it possible to live with a persisting uncertainty and enable their personal contribution.

The centrality of networks to the socialisation process parallels a broader trend in management research, which acknowledges the increasingly networked reality of organisational life and the importance of social capital (Methot et al., 2018). The findings of this study provide empirical confirmation of an emerging approach which brings together research on organisational socialisation and social networks/social capital theory, represented by Fang, Duffy and Shaw (2011) (theoretical model), Hatmaker (2015) (theoretical paper) and Morrison (2002) (empirical study).

What organisations can do to make use of these insights:

  • View onboarding activities as a means to both transmit information and help newcomers grow relevant networks. For example, invite employees with longer tenure to discuss characteristics of the organisation together with newcomers.
  • Make network brokering part of the culture. Develop practices where everyone helps connect newcomers to incumbent organisational members who they may have an interest in knowing, for example, because of similar professional or non-professional interests. Be aware of the different types of networks that support newcomer adjustment, and help newcomers grow this diversity of connections.
  • Use digital communication tools to facilitate the connection of people. Ideally, introduce new members to communications platforms before they officially take on roles in the organisation. In that way, the newcomers are allowed to ease into the community of practice by observing without any expectations to contribute.
  • Give the newcomer some ‘starting nodes’. Formal schemes for mentors and buddies can be effective ways to give the newcomer some nodes to start building their network from and making sure the newcomer has, for example, someone to coach them in defining their developmental goals and someone to offer social support. Explicitly articulating these roles can be valuable, since outspoken roles take away the possible resistance that newcomers may feel to reach out to individuals that have not formally agreed to be connected with them.
  • Make newcomers aware of the importance and usefulness of networking. For example, encourage newcomers to identify role models that may inspire them in how they want to develop competence wise or contribute to the organisation internally.
  • Connect newcomers with each other. Create forums where newcomers can meet without organisational members with longer tenure. Such contexts can be important safe spaces for newcomers to share experiences and support each other.

By understanding the diversity of social networks that newcomers require and facilitating for their growth, organisations greatly improve the chances that their new members will both ease into the organisational community and be enabled to contribute in their own unique way.

This blog post is based on some highlights from my MSc Dissertation in Organisational Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science 2018/2019. All names are pseudonyms.

Written by Åsa Jonsson
Åsa Jonsson
Future strategist and thought leader in how technological development, human collaboration and consumer culture evolve together.
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