Monday, March 3, 2008

Mapping Relationships

David's been blogging at Pure Schmaltz about the usefulness of (and some techniques for) mapping the relationships needed to make work work well.

Lately there has been a lot in the trades about social network mapping. I find all of it interesting and my inner data geek really is fascinated by the methods for tracking email or other communication in an organization. A piece of me wants to pull out and dust off the old data gathering / research chops and get to work selling companies mapping packages. And, an older, wiser me realizes the folly in this.

Folly? Huh?

Okay, if what you want to do is spend a lot of time and money (and the time and money of a company) mapping things, then go for it. It would even be interesting and provide some insights. However, as interesting as this would be on a large scale, the sort of mapping that is most useful can be done in the small and on the fly.

Besides the time and money spent, in the shifting sands of our organizations how likely are you to wind up with a map of current reality? More likely, you'll get a gold-plated, out-dated map of how it used to be - interesting for archival purposes but not terribly useful in navigating your work today. Unless you are in a pretty stable environment with meantime between reorganizations of more than twelve months, by the time large scale mapping studies are done, the map is likely to be pretty much useless for day to day work. Anyone who has tried to get from point A to point B using an outdated map (one in which they have a heavily investment) knows, you might be better off having no map at all.

Although we've not called it social network mapping, the techniques we've taught for years for dealing with the human elements of work certainly seems to fit the description. My favorite technique is subculture mapping.

In subculture mapping we consider the patterns within the organization and its sub-organizations - down to whatever is the relevant group size. We look for the over-riding patterns of group dynamics and ask "What does safety seem to entail for this particular group?"
  • Do members flee into the safety of following a strong, charismatic or, perhaps, autocratic leader?
  • Do members flock into a clan or clique that, from the outside, can seem impenetrable but feels perfectly rational and well functioning inside?
  • Is this an every wo/man for him/herself chaotic culture - with management and organizational structure showing little effect on the way things get done?
  • Is the predominant metaphor competing - with safety defined as being on the winning side of skirmishes and battles and besting your opponents?
  • Oh yes, I must include the illusive, textbook, congruent culture in which safety is in speaking up, doing the right thing, balancing interests, and pursuing results through rational and explicitly agreed upon process. (Warning: if you think you are inside a congruent organization check from someone outside your group)
To be clear, each of these types can accomplish great results - none is better or worse, more or less functional. And, if you approach one of these organizations assuming it will act like a type other than it is, you are likely to leave with disappointed expectations.

Within each type of organization, there are more and less useful and effective ways of approaching getting work done, seeking support or resources, and feeling accepted and valued. Recognizing what you're working with is the first step in devising useful strategies. In our workshops we spent a bit of time reflecting on what we know about the do's and don'ts of working with each type.

And I've never seen anyone, after a bit of reflection, who couldn't pretty accurately size up the 'type' of various groups. And, I've not met anyone yet who, when comparing notes, couldn't come up with a half a dozen more useful strategies for getting things done with /within that group.

If you've got a giant budget, go for the study. If you just need to get work done, take a look at what is there. As Yogi Berra said "You can see a lot by looking!"

More on other strategies for understanding relationships more usefully in future posts.