Informal networks

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Within organisations and communities, formal structures and communication channels are only one aspect of the reality. The informal networks and associations that co-exist are in fact the things that keep the formal systems working. Their very efficiency often disguises the failure of formal change initiatives as people just get things to work, leveraging their informal networks to resolve tensions and create solutions.

Informal networks are context-free information channels. By contrast, context-specific information channels are primarily what informs organisation design and systems design – highly efficient, provided that the definition is right and the information is right. However, in a crisis (or complexity) you need broader information, faster, with less mediation. Informal networks require trust, but are not constrained by context, qualities that make them extremely effective under conditions of uncertainty.

A key aspect of this management is a recognition of the essential entanglement of multi-faceted lives that we all live both within, without and through the organisations of which we are a part. Juarrero’s famous designation of a complex system as “like a bramble bush in a thicket” illustrates this well. In modern organisation design managing the informal is an if not more important than managing the formal. It is a messy process and one that also involves managing transitions between the two.


Name and history

The metaphor of Mycorrhiza helps to talk about the informal networks in an organization... The role of the informal network in an organisation is key and in a healthy organisation it will be a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with the formal structures and processes. In an unhealthy organisation it will still be symbiotic but the symbiosis will be commensalistic in nature.

If we use the informal network properly, it is the wildflower garden from which variety and formalism can be created through methods that combine members in new ways. It an essential low-cost mechanism by which knowledge and information flow in a organisation and the multiple peer to peer threads provide support and substance to employees.

Associated Methods

There are a range of techniques and methods for managing, stimulating and leveraging informal networks including:

Do's and Don'ts

  • If you do not intentionally design and entangle informal networks, they may default to corruption and undesireable influences - for example the "old boys club" in many goverments...
  • Build networks for ordinary purpose, that you can activate for extraordinary need. Building on the general complexity principle: you build capability so that the system can resolve issues that you can’t yet anticipate.
  • Communicate by Engagement: Instead of telling people what to do and thinking that they are passive recipients, you can present the current situation to your HSN and you ask them to assess the situation (write assessment or just index it). This gives you a map of attitudes and beliefs, weak signals etc.


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Method card material

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Front page description

Tweet length

Back of card summary

Text limit = 600 characters. A simple summary of the key stages or aspects of the method.

How can it be used?

for diagnosis

for analysis/understanding

for intervention

Method Properties - Ratings

Represented by symbols - interpretation/voting scales are:

COST & RESOURCES: How resource-intensive is the Method in terms of materials and tools required, and thus costs?

  1. Requires only common office equipment (eg paper and pens)
  2. Requires simple facilitation materials (special hexies, printouts, whiteboards etc)
  3. Requires some inexpensive but specific tools and materials
  4. Requires moderate investment in tools or software to apply
  5. Requires significant investment in software or other specialist tools

COMPLEX FACILITATION SKILL: How much training and skill in complex facilitation does the Method require?

  1. No complex facilitation experience is required
  2. Some complex facilitation experience needed - practice in a safe space
  3. Should be mentored while developing complex facilitation skill
  4. Requires Mentoring until proven, familiarity with theory critical
  5. Advanced, requires deep knowledge of theory and experience

ENGAGEMENT GRADIENT: How challenging is engagement of participants into the Method likely to be?

  1. Ad hoc technique - can be used in multiple contexts with relative ease
  2. Requires time commitment but overall, engaging and not difficult to achieve
  3. Mild uncertainty or discomfort, may need work to keep people engaged
  4. Indirect/ambiguous method, requires engagement through sustained levels of uncertainty
  5. Challenging method – may incur resistance if people expect a more traditional approach