Social Ties as a Tool in Corporate Reforms
Any changes in companies, whether revision of strategies or implementation of a new business model or mergers and restructuring are usually resisted. Large-scale changes can destroy employees’ loyalty, their confidence in management and their involvement in the working process.
Researchers from the Harvard Business School believe that success of organizational changes depends on how social ties are arranged in a team, what is the status of agents of change there, and how their colleagues treat changes. So, first things first.
Social Networks: What They Are Like
Researchers who analyse social networks consider human relationships using a formal scheme which makes it possible to visualize ties between people. For example, workforce can be presented as a graph in which each individual will be represented by a “node” or a point, and ties between them — kinship, friendship, membership in a club, friendship in Facebook, etc. — are presented by edges of the graph connecting the “nodes”.
Two structures: cohesive social networks and bridging social networks are distinguished by researchers among multiple social networks. In the first case, this is about a social network within which people have connections both with a particular individual and among each other. It could be a group of schoolfellows or a group of friends. In the second case, an individual acts as a “broker” or a “bridge” that connects two groups non-intersecting with each other. An example could be the “revolving door” policy which has been implemented in the United States: when retired officials continue their careers in business and thus mediate between two communities: their former department colleagues and their new companies.
In the networks of the first type, people trust each other, communicate a lot with each other and are ready for coordinated joint actions. They are able to control each other. This control is of the informal nature and rests upon the natural desire to ‘be like everyone else’ and upon a kind of solidarity: for example, group pressure can make a person stay in the office until nightfall precisely because all the other colleagues work hard, although the work day has long ended.
Bridging networks work differently: since the groups that are connected by a so-called “broker” do not intersect other than with its help, the position of the “broker” allows coordinating flows of information and resources among those groups. Thus, “brokers” see and know more than representatives of the groups which they “connect” and they can dose information communicated from one group to another.
Agents of Change: Who They Are and Why They Are Needed
As a general principle, organizational changes have need of agents, i.e. a kind of “guides”, who formulate and advocate, for instance, the new strategy of a company, explain and convince their colleagues of a need for change. Broad-minded top managers, external consultants, new employees with advanced experience in their field, opinion leaders of work collectives or experienced managers, who understand that the company has reached a certain “ceiling” in its activity area and needs to expand to new markets or restructure the entire business model, can act as such agents.
The structure of ties among employees may vary from subdivision to subdivision. For example, two cohesive networks can simultaneously exist within the same department, with an “employee-broker” acting as a “bridge” between them. Similarly, agents of change can be surrounded either by completely hostile teams or, on the contrary, by friendly teams, and various groups consisting of protagonists and opponents of changes, as well as of those, who have some doubts as to the necessity of changes.
What is the Right Way to Build “Networks”?
If this is about gradual and minor changes, for example, about working procedure optimization, short-term planning process or communication via internal mail service, it is easier for agents of change to rely on cohesive networks. Here pressure of the informal group will work: proponents of changes would provide an example for those, who have doubts as to the necessity of changes or do not want them at all, and the reluctance of the latter to be a “black sheep” in their collective would make them follow the example.
Bridging networks work better where revolutionary changes are required involving change in the activity area of a company, a new business model or revision of corporate identity. An agent of change playing the role of a “broker” connecting two groups will not let them unite and form a coalition, controlling and manipulating information flowing from one group to another.