Identifying Key Connectors/Informal Leaders at Scale

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This recent article by Reid Carpenter  on uncovering the authentic informal leaders reminds us again that in a post industrial economy, the powerbrokers are less likely to be identified by their C-Level formal titles, and more likely to be identified through word of mouth. New emerging organisational forms like Holocracies  and Business Networks  will live and die by the strength of their informal leaders. The importance of the connector is nothing new. Seth Godin wrote a book about ‘linchpins’; we have also blogged about the Quiet Achiever. There are now many sources of advice on how to recognise a genuine connector/informal leader. The challenge exists however, on how we identify these new informal leaders at scale?

Business and stock exchange directories can still provide us with those that occupy the formal power roles. In today’s economy however, it is often the next layer of powerful connectors and invisible leaders that dictate success or failure; the equivalent of the industrial age ‘middle management’. Let’s consider the world’s largest business network Linkedin. How would one identify a ranked list of informal leaders from this massive network? Is it the ones with the most connections? the most followers? the most read posts? the most diverse suite of connections? the ones who are most regularly asked to broker a connection? Perhaps it’s a combination of all of these, or perhaps none at all. What is problematic is that we don’t have a simple directory to look up. We are therefore left to explore the ‘word of mouth’ network. As effective as this can be, is there an alternative that can work at scale?

While we don’t yet have the answer, it is certainly something that consistently exercises our minds and ongoing research activities. Let’s take for instance, Microsoft’s Yammer network as a source of data for identifying informal leaders. By this we mean those that don’t have an acknowledged or formal role as a connector/leader e.g. a general manager, community leader, business coach, business improvement leader etc.. On first thought we could look at who gets ‘mentioned’ or ‘notified’ a lot. The ‘mention’ function is a ‘word of mouth’ proxy. The ‘notify’ function we have observed can be used by formal line management to direct the attention of their staff, but is also used to direct attention up the formal lines of management. It tends to work like an email ‘cc’ equivalent. The question is whether these message ‘tags’ can be used to profile connectors and informal leaders i.e. are the people that use the ‘mention’ and/or ‘notify’ functions really representative of connectors or informal leadership? Are the people who are the subject of these functions the real informal leaders? Perhaps those doing the mentioning and notifying are the ‘connectors’ and the subjects are the ‘informal leaders’? i.e. connectors are separable from informal leaders.

Taking these thoughts further, a connection is not a connection unless it is acknowledged by the parties being connected. For example, a Linkedin connection has to be formally acknowledged by both parties. A twitter follow is therefore not a connection, unless of course it is reciprocated. Therefore, simply mentioning or notifying someone is not a connection unless it is acknowledged by the subject.

While a ‘connector’ is often seen as an informal leader, is just connecting enough? This is where I start to qualify my earlier assertions  that activity measures are no indication of collaborative performance. If we adopt a ‘connections before activity’ perspective, then activity rates between connections becomes a useful proxy for connection strength and even relationship strength. It’s not hard to accept that if two connected people are conversing a lot i.e. have a highly active connection; then it is likely that they are more strongly related (even if the relationship is argumentative). And those individuals who sustain many highly active and diverse connections, are more likely to be the authentic informal leaders that Reid Carpenter describes.

Using our Yammer benchmarking data  we are able to make the measurements described above, at scale using reciprocated interactions and activity counts within connections. That said, we will still need to validate these indicators against some of the more qualitative attributes identified by Carpenter and other commentators, to be sure. So watch this space!

A final comment on Linkedin. While this network provides authenticated connections, it is missing a ‘strength of connection’ capability. Hence in most cases our Linkedin networks would be what is called a ‘weak tie’ network. Without a reliable way of measuring a strength of connection/relationship, I believe we have no reliable way of identifying authentic informal leaders in this network. The same could be said for other public networks like Twitter and Facebook. There is hope however in the Enterprise Social Networks, where interactions are more focused and the audience more constrained.

Image citation: How to Find and Engage Authentic Informal Leaders – Illustration by Shutterstock/alphaspirit

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