Dave Snowden

The power of informal systems

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In the past week or so I have had the privilege of meeting ad talking with some extraordinary young Australians who represented their country at the World Skills competition which is an international event for vocation and trade skills. (www. Worldskills.org.au) Almost without exception when asked about what influenced their choice of vocation, the most important influence was friends and/or family…. closely followed by the opportunity to try something.

Their experiences caused me to reflect on my undergraduate course on organisational behaviour – yes, it was a long time ago but it WAS in my lifetime! I remember clearly being taught that the major problem in organisations was the informal system – and the how it was critical to close down the grapevine and rumour mill and have people understand why the organisation chart must be obeyed!

Even back then that seemed more than a little crazy – although of course I dutifully reproduced the current ‘ideas in good currency’ to pas the exam. And my reaction to the doctrine probably also had something to do with my inability to work comfortably in the rigid and inflexible work arrangements and reporting protocols that typified the public sector at that time resulting in being asked to leave .

“ It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” was an expression of condemnation – usually said with high levels of sneering , disdain and discontent, in describing what were regarded as dysfunctional workplaces. And now of course, a significant amount of time money and energy is invested in strengthening informal systems, helping people know as many others as possible as the basis for getting things done, and reducing the application of formal rigid rules to defined arenas… however there is still often an overlay of the ‘formal’ reporting structure to ensure ‘control’. It is of course one of the great paradoxes that, with complex issues and systems, the more in control someone tries to be – the less in control they actually are.

It is of course a both/and world….. achieving excellence in their chosen vocation required attention to detail, repetitive attempts to meet standards and the small tolerances for error –however, in the words of the ‘skillaroos’, technical competence is the entry point to excellence; social and interpersonal skills are critical for sustaining their application and commitment.

So – for me it is further evidence that the when the informal system is nurtured– and the idealised notion of the perfect organisation with perfect reporting and authority lines becomes part of a 1960’s fairy story- resilience and excellence emerge. And that those who see informal systems and networks of relationships as strengths that do not need to be controlled, provide the space where innovation can flourish.