Heard it on the grapevine…

The ‘grapevine’ was around long before Marvin Gaye made it a Motown hit. During the Civil War, slaves in America’s Deep South used the ‘grapevine telegraph’ to follow the news before it officially arrived. “Often the slaves got knowledge of the results of great battles before the white people received it,” recounts Booker T Washington in Up From Slavery. Fast forward to the 21st century and little has changed: informal networks continue to be an incredibly fast and efficient means of passing on and learning information. Far from being a hindrance, these networks are proving increasingly valuable in a hyperconnected, globalised world. Social network analysis (SNA) – also referred to as organisational network analysis – is the mapping and measuring of networks and nodes in an organisation. It is gaining increasing currency as companies, despite the most noble of intentions, struggle to catalyse innovation internally. One reason? Technology may enable numerous channels of communication but person-to-person relationships remain the most potent force for change, say researchers Rob Cross and Jon Katzenbach. “Senior executives … may clamour for a seat on the leadership committee because that is where the key strategic decisions are supposedly made,” Cross and Katzenbach say. “But in actuality, the group rarely conducts its work in unison, as a deliberative body or a source of command. Instead, its power comes from its members’ informal and social networks.” Companies such as Novartis, Procter & Gamble and Mars have used SNA to chart how information actually flows around the organisation (as opposed to how management thinks it flows), pinpoint obstacles and develop better ways to drive collaboration. Recent work by an international research team highlighted the important role of idea scouts and brokers in influencing the success of open innovation efforts. “Leaders need to recognise that there is far more to open innovation than importing new ideas and technologies into the organisation,” the researchers say. “Promising ideas will not mature into innovative outcomes unless they reach the parts of the employee network that have the expertise and influence to exploit them.”

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