You go to work each day with the knowledge that you know who your boss is. You should also know his boss and so on. The problem is simple: these may not be the people of influence in the office. There are two organizations you need to understand; the formal organization and the informal organization.
A number of years ago, I was asked to work with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland to help them in “selling” their new management structure. Their plan was to go from six or seven layers of management to three. The problem was simple; a lot of individuals were about to lose their titles, titles that they worked hard to obtain. Many of the “management” positions were to be eliminated, though the individuals were not going to lose their jobs. Part of the seminar I conducted dealt with the idea that though the titles were to be eliminated, the knowledge base was still there.
I asked the group sit with those in their department and to identify the “go to person” in each section. As it turned out, many of the informal leaders were the supervisors, but they also included workers with longevity or those who had special knowledge of the section. Sometimes it was a person who had just transferred in from another department. We discovered, after a bit, that the informal “go to person” differed with the situation.
Think of it. Who is the “go to” person in your office when it comes to procedures? How about personnel issues? Who would you speak with before you went to the formal boss? These individuals may not have the title, but they certainly have the knowledge.
When I worked at the Colorado Division of Insurance, the informal leader was the commissioner’s executive assistant who had “survived” two administrations and four commissioners. She knew the history and procedures of the office. In our section, it was the analyst who had been in the Division for over 30 years.
In a retail store, it may be the assistant manager who is the Subject Matter Expert (SME) or a worker bee who has the knowledge base. There may also be multiple informal leaders depending on what the situation maybe.
As important as whom the informal leaders is the informal Gatekeeper, the person you must go through to get to the leader. In some cases that just may be the executive assistant or head of clerical, but it could also be one of the clerical staff or the receptionist. Know who to make friends with early in your encounters.
At the Fed of Cleveland, that person was not the executive assistant to the president, but the lead receptionist who knew most everyone who worked in the building.
Most informal groups develop through a social structure or as a project group. The SME may change over time depending on the needs and longevity of the group. Sometimes these groups make a lot of sense and are structured on a logical basis. Sometimes they seem to form about a social activity, the bowling club. Within a larger organization, the smaller informal groups make the system seem more “manageable.”
Again, using the Colorado Division of Insurance as my example, we had a number of small informal groups within each section. The analysts tend to stay with analysts, consumer affairs with consumer affairs and alike. But we also had a bowling team who would take their afternoon breaks together. They were all members of different groups and often controlled the dissemination of information between groups – They were the Bridges.
The Bridge is the person who may belong to two or more groups, who will share the communication between those groups to help coordinate efforts. The Bridge may be used to disseminate information down from the formal leaders.
The Bridge also is responsible for the “grapevine” conversations, the rumors and other information that needs to be transferred from group to group quickly before the formal word comes out. As you are aware from playing “Telephone” in group sessions that the information changes as it travels from person to person. The possibility of inaccuracies increases exponentially as the number of informal groups increase. It is up to the Bridge to keep the information as accurate as possible.
Sometimes an informal organization can develop outside of the formal corporate organization. Membership in a professional organization can create informal channels to disseminate information between organizations. For example, in a strategic move, members of a business club were aware of upcoming new hirings of engineers at a manufacturing plant the same day the openings went public. The plant’s HR department asked an employee-member if they knew someone who would be interested in the position. Three highly qualified candidates were identified early in the hiring process.
Even in our world of instant communication via email, text messaging and Twitter, it is the Interpersonal Communication through the informal groups that hold many companies together. Neglecting the informal organization could be a disaster in the world of corporate communication.
David is an award winning freelance editor, copywriter and speaker. InkandVoice Communication provides Business and Political Communication Editing, Copywriting, Consulting and Coaching. If you have any questions or would like a free consultation, please contact us at Dave@InkandVoice.com.