Enabling the Informal Organization

Last Updated Aug 20, 2007 3:37 PM EDT

With today's widespread accessibility of information and wall-to-wall communication, the idea of leveraging informal organizations has become much more popular in the board room, as well as such realms as political campaigning and independent music distribution.

Grassroots and word-of-mouth efforts on social networking sites like myspace have allowed both politicians and musicians to reach a large and dynamic audience and to network in ways previously not possible. In addition to their normal canvassing and influence peddling, radio promotions and distribution chains, they are able to create word-of-mouth by facilitating informal meetups, administering chat rooms, offering music streams and downloads,and other nontraditional, nonstructured means.

In the business world, the benefits can be even greater because the organization likely works on one platform with similar communication tools. Recent work by prominent management expert Jon Katzenbach and partners in his consulting practice with these conditions in mind has invigorated the discussion on formal and informal networks.

The formal organization, simply put, is represented by the company org chart. It is a relatively static top-down hierarchy where communication and decision-making mostly takes a linear route up and down the chain of command.

The informal organization is a more dynamic and fluid means of communication, teaming and knowledge sharing that takes place outside of, or in spite of, that structure. It's this more fast-and-loose collaboration that spurs innovation and speeds problem solving within teams.

Here are a few ways that team leaders can facilitate and take advantage of their informal organization:

  • Instant messaging: Instant messaging draws its strengths from immediacy and informality. A quick question can be answered within seconds. Users can see if their colleagues are available at any given time, saving them the time of walking by offices or cubicles multiple times. It's this type of instantaneous problem solving that is crucial to the efficient workflow of effective teams.
  • LinkedIn: The widely embraced business networking tool allows team members to play the six degrees of separation game when looking for an information source, a subject matter expert, freelance help or even a new hire. What better way to approach seeking help outside the team than leveraging people whom other team members already know and trust?
  • Collaboration platforms: Many of the newer collaboration platforms allow team members to share contacts, bookmarks and other sources of information that could save others valuable research time. Users can quickly and easily organize and search their instant messaging and email correspondence with teammates, creating a detailed and tremendously useful blueprint to how a problem was solved as well as a guide to which members might be valuable sources of information and help within the team.