The value of a strong network of contacts and a collaborative approach to work has never been higher. Few people would instinctively argue otherwise, and there is a significant body of research that demonstrates the impact on business performance. Yet most organisations do little to enable this and activity is often fragmented and piecemeal, not part of a holistic strategy. To combat this your organisation should create a Head of Connections.
The business case for networks and collaboration
There is a range of reasons why networks and collaboration have become essential to success, both for individuals and businesses.
The amount of data – all potential sources of competitive advantage – is growing exponentially; 90% of the information in the world today has been generated in the last two years. For companies, let alone individuals, to attempt retain and process the information relevant to their market or specialism is pointless, hence the shift from hiring and rewarding highly knowledgeable individuals towards encouraging collaboration and the creation of corporate hive minds through expanded networks.
The wider pace of societal and technological change also increases the importance of networking. Want to understand the implications of blockchain of fintech disruption on your retail bank? Far quicker to tap into your network or partner with a start-up than try and build that knowledge in-house.
And as the distinction between permanent employees and gig workers blurs, and technology enables global connectivity, collaborating effectively across these boundaries is essential.
The benefits are clear. One study showed that CEOs with a diverse network generated an increase in their firm’s value around 16x higher than their remuneration, and research has found that companies with well-connected Boards deliver better returns.
Collaboration is also a recognised driver of creativity. “Collaboration” and “Looking out” are two of the six principles Ideo identified as being vital to innovation, and teams who practice cross-pollination or interdisciplinary working are more likely to produce break-through ideasthan their more siloed peers.
So why do most firms take such a fragmented and inconsistent approach to encouraging collaboration?
We worked with an investment bank that included “collaboration” as a key capability to recruit for, and emphasised this in its corporate values – but a key promotion metric was individual profit contribution. It’s not hard to guess which lever was more effective in driving behaviour.
Similarly, most professional services firms pitch to clients the chance to access their global pool of talent and then set the Partners individual revenue targets, encouraging them to hoard talent and put their interests above the firm’s.
Even where organisations are taking a holistic approach, ensuring that they recruit, develop, manage performance, promote and reward their people in a way that consistently drives a network mindset and collaboration, this is not sufficient; the physical and technological environment has a vital impact on behaviour.
Encouraging the sharing of ideas is laudable, but if your firm blocks file-sharing, restricts cloud-based storage, or makes video conferencing expensive and difficult to access then you are sending out a contradictory message. And many global firms, particularly in regulated industries, will heavily limit the ability of their people to use the technology that was designed precisely to make network activity easier.
The physical work environment is also hugely important. Organisations such as Humanyze are using organisational network analysis to measure the impact of the physical environment, with one case study showing that a change in office layout to drive more collaboration led to an 11% increase in bank branch performance.
All of this shows why encouraging collaboration is so difficult. There are so many different factors, behavioural, physical and technological, that enable it that in almost all organisations accountability sits across multiple roles and functions. No one team or person is responsible for mobile technology, office design and capability definition – unless you create a Head of Connections.
The job description?
So what should the Head of Connections do? Let’s look across the employee lifecycle, starting with recruitment.
Does your organisation’s brand emphasise collaboration and networking as a core cultural attribute? Does your marketing material reference it, and what tools are you using to screen candidates? Psychometric and AI-enabled assessments can all measure the relevant behavioural preferences, and managers can be equipped with appropriate interview questions to probe more deeply.
The onboarding experience is a key cultural touchpoint. Yes, the Head of Connections should guarantee the importance of building networks and collaboration is referenced in this activity, but the approach should be broader than this. They should ensure that inductions are organisation-wide not departmental, and there should be activities to help new joiners start to build their own networks. Managers should be tasked with encouraging and enabling this as part of the first 100 days.
Management and leadership development programs are a great opportunity to bring together peers from across the organisation and expose them to external ideas and organisations. Sessions should be designed to build cross-functional relationships, and tools such as peer coaching and alumni events for attendees can help maintain and reinforce networks.
The Head of Connections also has a vital role to play in talent identification and mobility. The definition of potential should incorporate breadth of experience and collaboration mindset. Future leaders should be identified in part on their track record of, and commitment to, working collaboratively. and the promotion and succession planning processes should include the same consideration.
Crucially, the performance management and remuneration should be aligned to drive collaboration. The law firm Herbert Smith Freehills took an innovative approach to this, incentivising their Partner community to deliver “revenue synergies” following the merger in 2012, part of a broader drive to build and measure network performance and realise the full potential of the new organisation.
To be genuinely successful the role holder needs to focus on more than behavioural change. They need to work with the IT and Facilities teams to ensure that employees are provided with the tools and physical environment to enable collaborative working. This doesn’t mean they need to be an expert in all these disciplines but they do need to be willing to, well, collaborate and build networks to make it happen.
And last but not least, they should be responsible for measuring the power and impact of collaboration. This naturally means tracking employee attitudes through engagement and pulse surveys, but also using more advanced metrics. Technology allows more sophisticated network analysis of email and phone traffic as well as physical movement. Changes in candidate behavioural profiles, the use of video conferencing, and career mobility can all be monitored.
And then there is the holy grail; the completion of deals or the generation of new revenue that wouldn’t have happened without collaboration. Once that is measured – once the business benefit is irrefutable – then the argument over whether the role is needed or not will surely be over.