Reinventing Organizations Through Networks



Hi, I'm Joe Cahill, Chief Customer Officer for Project Management Institute. PMI is the professional society for project professionals and changemakers. 

There's a saying that associations value propositions that are built on knowledge and networking. Most of our Center Stage podcasts have focused on knowledge. 

With this podcast featuring Katrina Pugh, we're going to explore what networks are, their value to individuals and organizations, and tips for effectively engaging within a network. Let's listen to the interview, and then I'll share some closing thoughts.


Hello, I'm Steve Townsend, PMI’s Network Engagement Facilitator. Today, we're going to talk about reinventing organizations through networks. Sharing knowledge is key to innovation, growth, and organizational sustainability, and we couldn't have a better subject matter expert with us today than Katrina Pugh.

Katrina is a faculty member and the former Academic Director of Columbia University's Information and Knowledge Strategy Master of Science program. She specializes in business strategy, collaboration, social network analysis, and knowledge-driven transformation. 

Kate is general editor and co-author of Smarter Innovation: How Interactive Processes Drive Better Business Results; author of Sharing Hidden Know How: How Managers Solve Thorny Problems with Knowledge Jam; and is published in the Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review and Review of Economics and Statistics.

Kate, thank you for joining us today for this discussion of networks on Center Stage podcast.


Steve, thank you so much. I'm really glad to be here.


Let's jump right in. So your research focuses on networks, but people may have different definitions of what that means. Can you tell us a little bit more about what a network is and give us some examples of what networks might look like?


When people talk about networks they generally add two components. One is what I call mutuality and the other is what I call variety. 

First, mutuality - that is, people don't just simply come together to co-create knowledge and to solve problems, but they start developing interdependence, they start developing a sense of belonging, a sense that there is a purpose, even a shared fate, that's even bigger than themselves. 

The second, when we talk about variety - There are many different types of networks, and it's really important to know that networks are not all created equal. You've got networks that might focus on product outcomes like scale or specific software, or they might help with individuals who are trying to get support on a day-to-day basis because they're doing problem solving. 
So those two things are really important. So we’ve got mutuality and variety as two kind of modifiers of that definition.


So I know from my experience how I get connected into different networks. Based on your research, what have you found about some of the ways people get connected to networks, and how would you suggest that they go about finding a network built around a particular topic of interest?


That's a really good question. First of all, there are so many words for networks. 

So recently I did a project with a group called the Task Force for Global Health, and we were trying to figure out what were the terms for networks, and we came up with almost a dozen. Just to give you some, we heard terms like associations, task force of course, committees, convenings, working groups. You can imagine that those are searchable, if you go into any kind of a search engine and you can start to find things that are happening in a domain that you're passionate about. 

But another thing that I would do is I would use word of mouth. I would suspect that somebody in your orbit is really interested in that topic as well, and they've got a community that's just arm's reach beyond them. And you might be able to learn from them where to find it.


So, how would you distinguish between a network and a project team, because projects involve cross-functional teams of different people coming together, sometimes people from outside the organization joining that team to be able to deliver. So what distinguishes a network from a team, for example?


You know, there is a blurry line between them, but I'll tell you some of the things that I try to do in order to possibly impart some governance or some ideas to improve whatever you're in. 

So we typically ask two key questions when we're trying to determine if it's a network or a project team, or simply a project network. So first, we're asking, to what degree are they crossing boundaries. In other words, in what way is it going outside the traditional hierarchy? 

Imagine that being a horizontal axis on a two by two, and then have as your vertical axis, the degree to which the network or the group, whatever it is, is actually producing a product. Is it one off, or possibly a sustaining product? 

And you can imagine that a project team crosses fewer boundaries, but it does create a product, so it might be in the upper left. And then, if you think about maybe a social network where people are informally supporting each other just-in-time, doing troubleshooting and problem solving, they might be in the lower right. That might be something where you're getting some answers, but you're not necessarily trying to produce an artifact or a protocol or a checklist. 

But then, in the upper right, you've got things that cross organizational boundaries, and they're really oriented towards creating a product-like thing. Then you've got some really interesting types of project networks and things like open source and open data, where people are coming together, oftentimes even volunteering, and they're creating something that has really larger value than them, that can help society, and also help industry.


Yeah, that's really interesting. Where do just kind of normal business activities fit in that construct? Are they not necessarily part of networks, or do they fit on that quadrant anywhere?


Where is a business operation? Where is an operation that goes on on a regular basis, like your HR function? That might be in the lower left. That's where you're not necessarily cranking out a product and you're not necessarily crossing organizational boundaries, but it has merit nonetheless. We want to make sure we see it on our two by two. 

And there could be places that you go at different parts of your organizational life, any kind of function might choose to move to the right or move up to the north.


Let's shift a little bit and talk about the value of networks. I'm really interested in your take in this space because we've had your colleague Larry Prusak do a Center Stage podcast, and he talked about the fact that knowledge is one of the most underappreciated assets that an organization has, but it's its most important asset. 

And I would imagine that knowledge networks and networks in general help to amplify that. So now that we've explained what networks are, let's talk about that value. So if I'm running an organization, what's the value in creating networks of people within the organization, let's say, a community of practice for example?


Just to summarize a couple of things that I typically say to a manager who's considering investing in a network: Think about time savings and efficiency. That local adaptation can be pretty remarkable. Also, imagine that this can provide some job satisfaction. Employees might be more satisfied because they can shine in a network. Sometimes when they have to wait in the kind of queue of a hierarchy within the organization. Networks also are associated with a number of different kinds of innovations because they bring to bear these very cognitively diverse people. 

Networks can also help with managing risk, believe it or not. Some people think, oh what about IP or what about some concerns around security? On the contrary, networks can help with risk management because oftentimes they have eyes and ears in far places and feet on the ground. 

And then one last piece that I would add is that networks help with succession planning, and help identifying a pipeline of talent. To everyone's surprise, there might be somebody shining in a network with a great deal of energy and talent, but they're not necessarily visible to the organization itself.


It's interesting because we at PMI, of course, do a lot of work with organizations that have internal communities of practice or communities of excellence. And what we find is that there's a lot of internal benefit because it gives organizations an opportunity to leverage kind of “been there, done that” experience from within the organization. 

So instead of having somebody like me from outside come in and talk to people about what good practice looks like, they can actually leverage people in the organization who can share, this is what we did with this particular customer, this is how our team adapted to this particular situation. And in that storytelling and that engagement, people have a different sense of what the organization brings to the table, not just from an outside-in perspective on what good looks like. 

So I think that that focus on effective communities of practice bringing in and bringing out that that internal knowledge is really key for a lot of organizations. And like you said, it represents an opportunity for people in the organization to shine, even if they're sharing a failure that they've learned something from that, that they've helped to improve processes, that they've helped create a different way to think about a path to a solution, can be incredibly valuable for people within that organization. 
How do we help organizational leaders understand the power of these networks so that they put resources and support behind them?


Well, I think part of it is, the proof in the pudding. A lot of these networks are able to accelerate the productivity of project teams. And if you were to informally poll project teams and ask how many of those project team members are actually using their networks to do problem solving, those data would be pretty compelling. 

And there is research by Cummings and Pletcher, that was published in the Sloan Management Review, I believe in 2016, that might be the date, where they're talking about the performance of networked projects and it way outperforms the non-networked projects. So there's some proof in the pudding. 

The second proof in the pudding is, if you look at employee satisfaction, you will find many employees seek to be with others who are in their discipline. Many of them feel an affinity to their discipline, even more than to their department, or even to their organization. You give them the opportunity to flex those muscles, to say, for example, talk about enterprise architecture, and they're out there working with others in other divisions or others in other organizations, they will come back energized. And they will also come back, of course, with new ideas. 

And of course there are risks, too. I mean it's really worth making sure that you don't just paint a rosy picture, and not explain that there needs to be some practices and protocols in place. Intellectual property and confidentiality are both issues. You do need to make sure that your employees know that you thoroughly encourage them to go, for example, and work in an open-source network.

At the same time, you also need to let them know that there are certain things that are at certain levels of confidentiality, and it could be part of your product planning, and it could be part of your formula for one of your products. You do need to make them understand that that's not just simply punitive, there's a market value that stems from that intellectual property. 

And there's another risk, and many managers inflate this more than they should, but it's something you should definitely have on your radar screen because a manager might ask you. They might go out and say the grass is greener. But you know what, it's not going to necessarily mean that you're going to face attrition. 

If you keep an open channel of communication, employees might come back and say, hey look, they create opportunities for their employees over there to do this kind of thing, to attend a conference, or to write a white paper, or to have a meeting-free Friday, or something like that. And if you get ideas from employees about improving their lives from the network, that's a bonus.


Let's shift a little bit to talk about designing networks. I'm very curious about this since again I'm trying to stand up a new network. What are some of the things that you need to think about if you're designing a new network and what do you need to do to be successful?


Let's just start with, where are you going? When I look at networks, I know that they're not all created equal. Some networks may be very much around helping individuals, or taking ideas and translating them from place to place, and seeing what might be useful, for example, at Intel could be very different in application when I take it over to say, EY, where I also was. 

So the first question we ask is, is this a network that's focused on, you know, kind of working with tacit knowledge and people and solving problems? Next thing I might ask is, possibly, is this a network where we're going to create something? Like for example we talked about open source and open data, am I going to be co-creating a data set with my members? 

So, the first question we ask is, where are we going? Because as we design the network, as we start thinking about the tone we're going to set, our theory of change, like what kind of virtuous cycle we want to create with our network, who's going to be in there, what kinds of ways we want to come together, how much do we try to publish versus just shared verbally, all those questions really have to tie back to those initial questions about what kind of network we have. 

So I often say that you're looking for intentionality and alignment. Intentionality is what are we doing, where are we going basically. And then alignment is, how are we making sure that we stack up our business model, our charter, our roles and responsibilities, our ways of measuring ourselves, how do we stack that up to that intention?


So I guess then then it's also important to make sure that your network is aligned with the strategy of the organization as well. 


Yeah, absolutely. So for example, let's say that we are worried about the Great Resignation. We're fearful that a lot of people in our organization may be feeling disoriented because of COVID. We need to make sure that they feel safe, that they feel like they can get their problems solved through questions and through interactions. 

Maybe that means we need to be creating what we might call a member support type of network. If that's the case, then we are definitely going to try and line up the design of the network so that it is psychologically safe. It's a place where people can come like a refuge. 

On the contrary, we could also say, we actually need to have this network help us leapfrog our competitors. We want this network to help us figure out what might be around that corner, what might be the next kind of technology or product that we've got to get out there into the marketplace. 

And you can imagine that we need to have a very different type of network, a different way, for example, that we're going to be publishing documents and organizing our meetings to correspond to that different need of the organizational strategy.


You're also a founder of a network, Plastic Free Islands, which uses networks to help address the real-world problem of plastic waste. Tell our audience a little bit about how that came to be and how you be evolved.


This is so close to my heart. Back about 18 months ago, a number of my international colleagues from Hong Kong, from the Netherlands, and from the US and I were talking about plastic waste, and how to spread the lessons learned from governments and NGOs and companies, and in particular, how they've been making behavior change come about. 

And, of course, networks was an immediate solution for us. We knew that if we wanted to be able to create a spread of ideas, that local adaptation, that reach, that scale, all of that, we needed to be using a network model. 

And so this Plastic Free Islands Network, sort of fondly we call it PFIN, is starting with Curacao. In fact, I've been speaking with them just today and will soon be adding other island nations like Fiji and the Seychelles, and other Caribbean islands.

We have two sub communities. We have one that's called Plastic Entrepreneurship, and another one that's called Citizen Mobilization. So we're addressing both how do you upcycle plastic into cool new products or do interesting science with plastic to separate it out so that can be reusable. And then we also focus on how do we mobilize citizens to do things like invest in waste facilities, make single-use bags illegal, and also mobilize cleanups.


Okay, so do networks need to periodically adapt or evolve? Or do they continue to focus on the same thing on a continuous basis?


I think you're raising a really good point. I think there are signs that you have to look out for, because a network may need a reboot. 

You want to be able to see some really important symbols of staleness. You might see redundancy in the discussions. You might see people, perhaps, rolling their eyes when they hear things that they've heard in the past. Or you may see situations where it doesn't really feel like we're talking about new things that are evolving on the market or, for example, in the job workforce. It's sort of important to look at that content and look and see whether or not it's really propelling forward, or sort of rolling back. 

But then also you want to be able to see what's happening with participation. Are you seeing the same suspects returning to the meetings, returning to the threads? Are you seeing people grandstanding out there in the online discussions? 

If so, leaders need to engage. They need to say, oh well, let's kind of mix it up. Let's change our meeting format, or let's change the kinds of voices. Remember we talked before about staying diverse. They need to be intentional about that. 

And similarly, they might need to quietly take somebody aside who has been grandstanding out there in a discussion thread and say, you know, what would be great is if you actually mentored somebody. Maybe do less of this stuff here on the threaded discussion, and maybe something more behind the scenes, and maybe even codify what you know. Why not create something that we can publish on the website?

So there are lots of different ways we can kind of be aware of it, and there are some really creative approaches to mixing it up, changing different ways that people come across and getting some fresh blood into the leadership.


It's interesting that you talked about organizational leaders being engaged, and I guess they have to strike a balance between controlling the network and letting it live organically. What are some of the things that leaders can do to help facilitate and support networks?


I'll give you two big umbrellas, you can imagine we all probably have personal examples to fill in. The first one I would just call posture. I would say the leaders need to be part of the network. This can't be something that they may preside over as the benevolent overlord. 

They need to be out there occasionally and humbling themselves, and being part of the conversation and showing that they're approachable. Not just because it just makes them approachable, but more because they're role modeling. They need to be showing that staying curious, supporting other people, not really having a sense of hierarchy, those are all important dimensions to the network's effectiveness.

And then the second thing I like to talk about is the practice. So it's very useful to have a charter. It needs to be discussable, and it needs to have enough in it about the routines of the network, possibly the rotation of members or leaders through different committees and things. 

It needs to be formalized enough so that people can say, oh yes, we're falling short, or hooray, we're doing better than we actually even planned. And in some cases you may want to review the performance against that charter on a routine basis with your sponsors. 

For example, when I was at Intel, we met with our sponsor committee every single month, and we talked about our metrics. We talked about participation, we talked about topics. That occurred for the whole first year, then we moved it to quarterly, and it was invaluable. Not only because we knew that we were being recognized, but we also had those leaders aware of us and advocating for us.


So I want to close on a call to action. We've been talking about the value of these networks, both from an individual professional perspective and from an organizational perspective. 

So I want our audience today to commit that they're going to get involved in some network, either within their organization, within an area of personal interest, within an area of professional interest, but I want to do that in the context of, what should individuals think about related to their own responsibilities to the networks that they're in?


If it doesn't feel right, because, well, the charter or the purpose is at odds with your values, or with just basically what you're trying to do, you're trying to learn something that's slightly an angle away from that, start your own network, or see if you can create a working group inside this network. 

Make it yours. Really participate, and you will grow your own benefits from that participation. But if it doesn't feel right because of execution or follow through, get involved. Go ahead and help lead a meeting or start a working group that’s directly along the original lines of the network, or maybe even offer to present research that you've done on a topic. Really get involved and start being part of that execution. 

If it doesn't feel right because of personalities, one of the things you might want to do is to use that charter as a touchstone. Maybe quietly take aside the person or persons whose energy just doesn't seem aligned with what you thought was the original charter and just say, look, I'm trying to better understand the connection between this charter and the kinds of engagement that I'm seeing in the network. 

One thing you might do is you might say, hey maybe we need co-leaders for that particular topic. It might very well be that this is an opportunity to bring in fresh blood. Or you might want to explain some potential new ways the community could evolve. Or it might very well be that you want to role model the new behavior that you'd like to see. 

So for example, somebody might feel very certain. And you might say, well, I don't know if it's that certain, I don't know if that particular theory is still true given what has happened over the last year with COVID. This might be an opportunity for you to get some kind of thought out there. 

So you need to be able to see what's awry in your own perspective. Does it not feel right because of the charter? Did not feel right because of the execution? Or does it not feel right because of the personalities? And each one of those involve your action. It's not something you should just basically sit back and sort of let bother you. 

If you're not participating in the network or you're not getting benefit in it, go and do something.


Katrina Pugh, thank you very much for sharing your insights and your knowledge with our Center Stage audience today. We really appreciate your participation. And for our audience members if you're not currently a subscriber to the Center Stage podcast, please do so through Apple, through Google, Spotify or your other podcast providers. Thank you for joining us for today's discussion on networks.


This is Joe Cahill again to wrap up the podcast. Katrina's interview surfaced some key takeaways about networks that I want to reinforce. She talked about co-creation and collaboration. PMI Standards, credentials, and other offerings are developed by the profession for the professional. 

Our value proposition to project professionals and changemakers is based on networks of professionals who collaborate with PMI to co-create and improve the business impacts from project management. 

She talked about increasing your value. Getting involved in networks can increase your personal value when you gain fresh perspectives, new ideas, and efficiencies from learning from the experiences of others. 

She talked about doing your research as well. There are many networks out there in which you can engage. Make sure you spend sufficient time learning about each network before committing. If you try before you buy, test to see if that network you have in mind is worth the investment of your time, energy, and knowledge. 

She also talked about refreshing. If you are currently in a network that feels stale, consider what you can do to help that network become more relevant, increase its diversity, and challenge its thinking. All of these activities are key to keeping the network fresh and vibrant. 

I hope that you enjoyed this Center Stage podcast, and that you will continue to explore the future of work with us. Thank you.