In my recent articles
, I have reviewed the potential for designing digital and physical workspaces around the needs of teams and organizational communities, rather than just the requirements of individual employees, or the employing organization. However, given the ongoing shift from organizing through hierarchies to more networked ways of operating, many connected workspaces will need to serve another important type of organizational group: a distributed network.
Organizing Through Networks
We have traditionally organized through centralized networks, with different specialist groups, usually functions and divisions, connecting like spokes into a central hub. These specialist groups need the support of a connected workspace, and this type of workspace has become much more effective over the last five to 10 years, with even more development taking place during the pandemic. This includes the increased connectivity between physical and digital workspaces, also linked to the management of the workforce, which is the focus of this community.
However, these workspaces are still relatively simple, in one way at least: They focus on supporting and enabling individuals. These individuals have traditionally worked in functions and divisions, but they mainly work independently. They coordinate their activities with one another while focusing on performing against their own personal objectives.
This is a stark contrast to working in teams and organizational communities where the group’s objectives predominate, and where people do need to collaborate closely with each other to achieve the group’s super-ordinate goals. Both teams and communities are decentralized, with the teams and communities acting as hubs within a multi-hub network.
In this article, I’m focusing on distributed networks that operate without clear hubs. Rather, people, communities, and teams connect to others in the network as they see appropriate. This gives people the opportunity to work cooperatively with each other. These networks would typically have developed informally, but are now so important to organizational success that companies are also starting to formalize them.
This does not mean that distributed networks can be managed and directed. Networks, like organizational communities, operate based on personal relationships. They can be encouraged, nudged, and supported, but the individuals within them need to decide what to focus on for themselves.
Formal distributed networks are normally developed on top of existing organization structures, including functions, divisions, teams, and communities, but can also be the main or sole way that a company organizes.
The Need for Networks
Networks are the basis for innovation, allowing people from different parts of an organization — and who therefore have different experiences and perspectives — to come together to share and combine their insights. A good example is GE’s knowledge management
networks, which have developed an important role in problem solving.
Networks also act as a powerful enabler for change, such as when organizations identify networks of champions to support digital transformation. As another example, I have recently been involved in setting up a network of employee advocates who have taken on responsibility for conducting selection interviews, supported by a smaller community of recruiters.
As well as being important to business success, networks deserve particular attention at the moment as the “weak tie” relationships between people in different parts of the organization have often deteriorated during the pandemic. This is because people have generally concentrated on communicating within their teams while working remotely. This can be seen, for instance, in the rapid adoption of Microsoft Teams during the pandemic, compared to the much less significant increased usage of Yammer, which is Microsoft’s community and network-oriented product.
Also, as organizations have gotten used to people working remotely, workforces have started to include more people from different areas of the world, becoming more culturally diverse in the process. This trend is expected to continue with increased numbers of international remote workers and global nomads. It makes little sense to organize these more varied populations through the tight specialist groups and centralized reporting that we have traditionally used. So now that most workforces have become more geographically distributed, they need to be more organizationally distributed, too.
Managing through networks is much more complex than using vertical hierarchies or horizontal teams. It is therefore important that their management and navigation is simplified as much as possible. This is usually achieved through platforms that structure and standardize communications and requests for cooperation between network participants. The platform enables people to put their trust in other staff members they may never have worked with previously (in much the same way that a sharing economy platform like Airbnb gives you confidence you can let people you do not know live in your house).
Platforms can be mainly cultural. This is about having the shared values, experiences, norms, and ways of working that make it easy for people to cooperate with each other. W.L. Gore
, a multinational manufacturing company, is a good example of a networked business that relies on its strong culture to make the organization work. However, technology is increasingly playing a platform role, too.
This has been particularly important as networks expand outside of individual businesses to become ecosystems. The rise of contingent working has also meant that organizations have needed to adapt to include more people who do not have the same experience or commitment to an organization as most regular employees. These trends have created more difficulty in connecting people together through cultural norms and have meant that organizational platforms have had to be built mainly or solely through technology. This is the type of system in use by platform-based network businesses such as Haier
. Also, while not a focus of this article, a small number of distributed autonomous organizations
(DAOs) are using blockchain as a platform to connect completely independent groups and individuals within a very new type of organizational network.
Digital Network Workspaces
Digital workspaces in network organizations need to help people find and connect with others based on their insights and experience, enabling them to develop ongoing relationships, sometimes with one of the parties acting as a coach or mentor. This workspace may be based upon an existing enterprise social network but should offer additional capabilities, such as the ability to broker connections between individuals who would be usefully connected. Some systems incorporate AI capabilities to suggest with whom an individual might want to connect.
The workspace should also progress beyond helping people connect and communicate to make working together easier. Within the workspace, they should be able to share objectives, insights, outputs, and projects, as well as provide opportunities for collaborative working.
Physical Network Spaces
Physical workspaces can support distributed networks by offering small meeting rooms for individuals within a network to connect and get to know each other more deeply then might be possible through technology.
However, an even more important use of offices or other non-operational premises in a networked business is to enable a few hundred people within a network to get together in the same space to create common norms, form additional connections, share insights, and discover opportunities for cooperative working.
HR has the major responsibility for developing the cultural aspects of a network platform. This includes communicating and supporting common norms and cooperative behaviors through learning, performance management, reward, and other practices. As an example, a networked business might want to develop its performance management approach so that people can develop objectives relating to their network interactions, and get feedback from others they interact with across the organization.
HR will also usually need to facilitate network or broader organizational development activities, bringing people together using the digital or physical workspaces, or a combination of these, to have meaningful conversations about the way they are cooperating with each other.
This might include large-scale facilitated events using open space techniques
(often popularized as BarCamps or unconferences) or other approaches to agree on and discuss topics that network members believe are important. It might also include connecting small groups of network members to create more bridging connections across the organization. An example is the use of action learning sets or Working Out Loud
(WOL) circles to help people start working together more openly.
Distributed networks are one of the newest but potentially most important type of organization form to develop, offering the resilience of the Internet to the way we organize to do work. While most businesses aren’t managing themselves this way yet, the benefits of doing so are clear, and this may lead to a rapid uptake of the approach over the next few years.
Networked business is also probably the organization type with the greatest needs for an effective and connected workspace. Connected workspace owners and influencers would therefore benefit from paying close attention to how their own workspaces enable their people to connect and work together in the networked way described within this article.
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