Product details

By continuing to use our site you consent to the use of cookies as described in our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.
You can change your cookie settings at any time but parts of our site will not function correctly without them.
Management article
-
Reference no. SMR49304
Authors: - Various
Published by: MIT Sloan School of Management
Published in: "MIT Sloan Management Review", 2008
Length: 4 pages

Abstract

The world is remarkably small. At least that''s the prevailing view of sociologists who contend that people are merely a few connections away from each other (a maximum of six degrees, according to the widely held notion). But many employees in large corporations might beg to differ, especially when they''re having great difficulty finding information they need, important knowledge that resides somewhere in the organization, perhaps in the mind of an expert who works in another department at a different geographic location. In such cases, the corporate world can seem anything but tiny. The study was conducted at a large multinational consulting firm with more than 50 offices in 34 countries. In such an environment, professionals routinely need to obtain help from their colleagues, asking for advice on certain topics, markets, industries or companies. As such, taking the shortest path to the right knowledge can be a tremendous timesaver, greatly increasing the operational efficiency of an organization. The field experiment conducted at the consulting firm first identified the company experts on four specific topics: (1) transfer pricing; (2) asset productivity; (3) enterprise resource planning; and (4) advertising strategy. The consultants in the study were then asked to name those individuals. (It is important to note that the experts did not hold any official title or role to reflect their expertise. Rather, they were ''hidden'' within the organization). When the consultants didn''t know who the experts were, they were asked to name other colleagues who might know. Those intermediary contacts were then asked the same thing, either to identify the experts or to name others who could help, and that step was repeated until the experts were eventually located. Nearly 100 consultants were randomly selected to participate for each of the four search topics, and 381 search chains were initiated. The study found that three types of people tended to have longer search chains: employees who were relatively new, who resided at the periphery of the organization''s social network or who were female. Those results are hardly surprising. After all, why shouldn''t any member of an ''out'' crowd tend to be disadvantaged in locating important knowledge? (For the consulting firm in the study, women made up just 20% of the professionals. They were therefore, a minority in the organization as a whole). But there are a number of reasons why that doesn''t happen. Ease of communication and greater familiarity certainly explain why many people turn to similar others for assistance, but psychological safety is also a factor. That is, people are afraid of appearing ignorant, so they are more likely to seek help from others whom they perceive won''t be judgmental. But for members of an out group, the study found that the more effective thing to do is to commence with a ''crossover'' search. This was found to be true for consultants with shorter tenures and for those who weren''t centrally located in the organization''s social network. (Because of the relatively small sample of women in the study, the findings for that subgroup were inconclusive.) As such, companies that want to better exploit their in-house expertise should be aware that a subtle and seemingly innocuous phenomenon, the tendency of people to seek help from those who are in the same boat, might be hampering their efforts. One potential solution is a mentoring program that not only pairs newcomers with veterans but also tries to match people across various social lines. The results on crossover searches are supported by research in other fields. One past study, for instance, investigated how people tend to find new jobs. The typical practice is for people to rely on their inner circle of friends for help, but the study found that to be inefficient because those individuals will often have the same job leads. Instead, the better approach is to turn to an outer circle of acquaintances, because those people will tend to have fresh information. Indeed, the world can be small, depending on where a person starts his search.

About

Abstract

The world is remarkably small. At least that''s the prevailing view of sociologists who contend that people are merely a few connections away from each other (a maximum of six degrees, according to the widely held notion). But many employees in large corporations might beg to differ, especially when they''re having great difficulty finding information they need, important knowledge that resides somewhere in the organization, perhaps in the mind of an expert who works in another department at a different geographic location. In such cases, the corporate world can seem anything but tiny. The study was conducted at a large multinational consulting firm with more than 50 offices in 34 countries. In such an environment, professionals routinely need to obtain help from their colleagues, asking for advice on certain topics, markets, industries or companies. As such, taking the shortest path to the right knowledge can be a tremendous timesaver, greatly increasing the operational efficiency of an organization. The field experiment conducted at the consulting firm first identified the company experts on four specific topics: (1) transfer pricing; (2) asset productivity; (3) enterprise resource planning; and (4) advertising strategy. The consultants in the study were then asked to name those individuals. (It is important to note that the experts did not hold any official title or role to reflect their expertise. Rather, they were ''hidden'' within the organization). When the consultants didn''t know who the experts were, they were asked to name other colleagues who might know. Those intermediary contacts were then asked the same thing, either to identify the experts or to name others who could help, and that step was repeated until the experts were eventually located. Nearly 100 consultants were randomly selected to participate for each of the four search topics, and 381 search chains were initiated. The study found that three types of people tended to have longer search chains: employees who were relatively new, who resided at the periphery of the organization''s social network or who were female. Those results are hardly surprising. After all, why shouldn''t any member of an ''out'' crowd tend to be disadvantaged in locating important knowledge? (For the consulting firm in the study, women made up just 20% of the professionals. They were therefore, a minority in the organization as a whole). But there are a number of reasons why that doesn''t happen. Ease of communication and greater familiarity certainly explain why many people turn to similar others for assistance, but psychological safety is also a factor. That is, people are afraid of appearing ignorant, so they are more likely to seek help from others whom they perceive won''t be judgmental. But for members of an out group, the study found that the more effective thing to do is to commence with a ''crossover'' search. This was found to be true for consultants with shorter tenures and for those who weren''t centrally located in the organization''s social network. (Because of the relatively small sample of women in the study, the findings for that subgroup were inconclusive.) As such, companies that want to better exploit their in-house expertise should be aware that a subtle and seemingly innocuous phenomenon, the tendency of people to seek help from those who are in the same boat, might be hampering their efforts. One potential solution is a mentoring program that not only pairs newcomers with veterans but also tries to match people across various social lines. The results on crossover searches are supported by research in other fields. One past study, for instance, investigated how people tend to find new jobs. The typical practice is for people to rely on their inner circle of friends for help, but the study found that to be inefficient because those individuals will often have the same job leads. Instead, the better approach is to turn to an outer circle of acquaintances, because those people will tend to have fresh information. Indeed, the world can be small, depending on where a person starts his search.

Related