The Art of HR: Building Social Networks

I studied two organizations this summer who renovated their buildings to specifically accommodate relationship building. Their central cores were filled with tables and couches for small or large gatherings. They both had a Starbucks inside the building (if there was ever an incentive to get me to work at a different company, that would be it) and strongly encouraged relationship building in meetings and interactions. The HR leaders at one of these organizations had a large cubicle for office space, not a segregated office hidden behind guards (also known as Executive Assistants). This leader admitted their social aspects were still a work in progress, but judging by my short visit, they seemed to be way ahead of other companies.

Social networking has evolved in various formats, using technological advances to allow people to communicate with their network in unique ways. These networks have infiltrated our workforce and have created numerous fluid dynamics in our workforce. Avid social networkers can now create a portfolio of jobs, without relying on one single employer. Charles Handy predicted this “portfolio life” more than twenty years ago. Handy argued that our society would see a rise of part-time and contracted work as people built portfolios of expertise. The collection of this expertise would form a ‘shamrock’ type of organization. Handy argued that a growing segment of the population would not work for a sole company, but rather contract out their services. Handy was mostly correct in his predictions, but even he probably did not foresee the explosion and extent of the technology and networks that would make this possible.

In today’s networked economy, when a person needs a realtor for example, they will look to their social network first, and will most likely give their business to someone in their social network, or someone recommended by their social network. Likewise for a plumber, interior decorator, photographer or bookkeeper. No amount of advertising can replace the recommendation of a friend. Corporations spend millions of dollars each year attempting to create campaigns that will encourage people to share the advertisements with their friends. “Check this out…” on a status update is the Holy Grail of advertisement, for better or for worse.

If I know five people who work at Company X and despise their jobs, my view of that organization will be tainted. I will probably not want to work there, nor will I purchase their products or services. But if I know five people who work at Company Z who love their jobs and speak very highly of their company, then I will want to work there. I will also be more likely to purchase their products or services. Employees are ambassadors for their organizations, whether they know it or not. The organization’s perceived value in a social network is only as good as the collective sum of the perceptions of their own individual value in that social network. As one HR leader described this to me, “good news begets good news. When you are a successful organization, people come to you.” This HR leader was quite proud of the fact that his organization spends very little on recruitment advertising but still receive more than 80,000 unsolicited applications each year.

The power of social networking remains elusive to most organizations and conquering this elusiveness will be the key to many organizations’ success globally in the 21st Century. Some organizations (including one of the ones I studied) are merging their communications departments into their HR department. They have realized that there is no such thing as internal and external communications anymore, and that they have untapped communications power in their employees. I foresee this convergence at many other organizations in the near future.

HR leaders must also be able to train leaders on how to effectively navigate the informal social network within the organization. Social competencies are extremely important, and helping employees increase their social acumen is as important as any other competency that trainers can train for. Social acumen is essential to innovation, and requires a unique blend of tact, perseverance, skills and internal alliances. To teach this, HR must first set an example for the rest of the organization by building its own internal social networks. Effective leadership in this area will be required of 21st Century HR Professionals, and we ignore this area to the detriment of our entire profession.

Handy, C. (1989). The age of unreason. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.


Leading HR: Harnessing Social Power

HR Departments are often seen as the enforcers of the organization; the unbendable glue that protects it from litigation and unscrupulous employees. This is important, but HR also needs to see their role as one of building and valuing personal networks (Galbraith, 2000). The power of these networks cannot be understated. They form an invisible structure that is more powerful than any formal structure imparted by the organization’s leaders. Employees who effectively understand and navigate the social structure of an organization are the most influential employees, for better or for worse, in the organization.

Jay Galbraith describes the “reconfigurable organization” and argues that this type of organization must be able to reconfigure itself by forming teams and networks across organizational departments. As organizations continue to globalize, this ability to form partnerships becomes more and more complex. Galbraith also wrote that “the long-term human resources role is to build social capital by creating richly connected interpersonal networks across the organization.” Strong social networks within organizations can be a valuable competitive advantage in organizations and HR leaders are perfectly poised to ensure those networks remain strong. They are the people department after all.

This social power is especially important as Millennials continue to infiltrate workplaces. Millennials utilize technology with ease, and regularly engage and connect with their social networks. Thirty Percent of Millennials write openly about themselves online (Accenture, 2010), and I suspect that percentage is higher in 2012 than it was in 2010. The technology is a means to connect to them, not the actual connection itself. Most are unable to fathom life without these social networks: real or virtual. They were raised in a world where social media allowed them the freedom to interact with anyone they wanted to, and where the quality of a person’s ideas determines a person’s status, not their job title. They fundamentally believe that digital assets and knowledge are free. Other generations merely wish to believe this. HR leaders must learn to ride these trends, not just attempt to regulate them. Truly effective HR leaders will use these networks to the organization’s advantage, and increase its overall effectiveness by doing so.

Accenture. (2010). Jumping the boundaries of corporate IT: Accenture global research on Millennials’ use of technology. Retrieved from link.

Galbraith, J. (2000). Designing the global corporation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This is part One of a series I will be doing this summer on leadership by and from HR.