Strengthening Collaboration in a Large & Growing Company
We encourage you to download and share this thought leadership with others. You can also find the full text of the article below, author information and a place to share comments.
A large, high-growth electronics manufacturer wanted to build a strong network of collaborators and experts. They believed that the company’s scale had the potential to produce a network with a wide range of expertise that could be tapped to solve problems, avoid re-invention and rapidly innovate. To better support growth, the company also wanted to create an environment that effectively engaged and utilized high performers and experts.
Effective coordination across functions, geography and product lines was essential for achieving those goals. The Chief Technology Officer sought an Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) so the company could measure collaboration levels at intersections where connectivity is most important for economic value. By identifying challenges in the network, the company was able to make changes to better support collaboration and innovation.
To meet growth goals, the company’s network needed to be aligned with strategic objectives. Collaboration needed to occur seamlessly across units and locations. Key experts could not be so overloaded that they became bottlenecks. At the same time, employees needed clear access to people and information.
The ONA revealed a number of network liabilities that were challenging the business objectives, including:
- Wide range of connectivity. The average network size was lower than expected, averaging nine relationships per person. A closer look revealed a huge range of connectivity from none to 115. Employees on the periphery and those who were overloaded had very different needs.
- Difficulty building a robust network. New employees were having difficulty getting connected, taking up to five years to build a robust network. In fact, all but one of the top connectors and two of the brokers had been with the company for more than ten years. Plus, the top connectors were overwhelmingly from the same division – setting up a significant roadblock to innovation.
- Divisions divided. Divisions operated in silos, with 84 percent of all collaborations occurring within division. In addition, only five percent of the people with division-spanning relationships held nearly half of all connections across divisions. These “brokers” were critical to the transfer of best practices and efforts to spur innovation.
- Overlooked high performers. High performers who are not well connected don’t convey their knowledge – their talent is under-valued and under-utilized. In this case, 38 percent of people with top performance ratings were on the periphery of the network. The problem in reverse? Forty-nine percent of the strongest networkers were not considered top performers.
- Expertise gaps. Since this company was experiencing high growth, one concern was the ability of people, particularly newer hires, to locate experts quickly. Most companies will hire for a given skill set and assume they are staffed sufficiently – until they see the collaborative demands on people with specific skill sets. Insights generated from an organizational network analysis can provide a much more effective utilization of talent. The analysis revealed three different challenges, depicted in Diagram 3.
1.Overloaded experts. In some expertise areas, there was one clear expert who was heavily sought out. A related analysis showed that these people were overloaded and unintentionally holding up a range of initiatives. Also, the company was extremely vulnerable to their departure. For example, Rob A. with an expertise in Battery Charge Circuits and James G. of Product Lifecycle Management are clearly the most in-demand experts in their areas.
2.Unclear expertise. In other areas, there was no clear go-to person. In fact, in a few groups – LED Lighting, Prototyping and Optical Microelectronics – there were approximately as many people who needed assistance as those who could provide it. In these cases, people did not know who to turn to and no one developed a deep expertise.
3.Under-utilized knowledge. In several areas, there was a fairly clear and evenly distributed set of experts – Control Modules, Metering Equipment and Precision Machining. However, systems did not exist to strengthen the knowledge and capability and/or efficiently convey it to others – especially outside the function.
The company had a traditional operations structure, depending on very senior, tenured people within divisions. To move to a more global, responsive model, the company took several steps based on the ONA. Key elements included efforts to de-layer the five percent of the employees that supported more than 25 percent of the collaborative demands and to more effectively integrate newcomers and their expertise.
Collaborative demands were shifted so that there was sufficient access to the top connectors and experts. The company began communicating expertise more broadly through “expertise locators.” Where core expertise was critical to success, secondary “go-to” people were identified and work shifted to them via a mixture of role definition, decision right allocation and training. Hiring and mentoring activities also helped ensure redundancy of expertise. Documenting work processes and FAQs in a readily accessible system also formed an element of memory that eased the load on core experts and reduced vulnerability if they changed roles.
To engage newcomers and make their expertise transparent, the on-boarding process was redesigned. It included introductions to key connectors who might utilize their skills early on, a “smart mentoring” program, initial staffing on the right projects with short rotations and the expertise locator system. Leaders learned that the smart mentoring program also benefited the longer-tenured people by giving them a clear channel to engage with new employees.
To improve collaboration across divisions, specific points in the information network were identified where greater collaboration could yield benefits and where innovation potential existed. Conducting select interviews with employees on either side of these collaboration gaps helped identify causes and concerns such as process flow, incentives, awareness of expertise and political dynamics.
To help overcome these challenges, the company began to redefine staffing methods, ensure incentives were aligned and create liaison roles to share best practices. A number of ideation sessions and concurrent new product development projects were initiated and supported. In addition, the company leveraged the insight and perspective of brokers – those with connections across sub-groups – as they were in the best place to see what will work and what will not.
As leadership shared the ONA results and began systematically bridging gaps by creating new connections at critical junctures, cross-division sharing began to bring a more holistic perspective to problem solving and solution development.
One year later, a short follow-up survey was conducted that revealed a more balanced distribution of collaboration:
- Collaborations rose by 23 percent across divisions and resulted in a higher number of solutions in the pipeline.
- The average number of relationships per person rose by 26 percent as the lower-tenured people became more integrated.
- Work was more effectively spread across the network – improving access, allowing employees to get information more quickly and fueling greater collaboration and innovation.