Nothing but nets: applying network theory to the workplace

All views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

For another view on networks and innovation, see this post from Innovation Crescendo.

The metaphor of the healthy workplace has been around long enough that it’s more or less one of those catchphrases business types throw out, like “getting the right people on the bus,” (hat tip to Jim Collins).  And like a lot of memes, “healthy workplace” sticks around because it holds an element of truth in it.  Organizations recognize the value of having a workplace that allows workers to thrive, grow and create.  Because of this, a number of methods have been proposed and are in use for evaluating how healthy an organization is.

I’d like to propose one more.  From working on genomics and transcriptomics, I’ve learned the value of looking at networks of molecules as one way to understand human health, and I’ve been thinking about how the concepts of using networks to measure health could be applied outside of biology.  Specifically, can we apply network theory to help monitor the health of a workplace?

We know, instinctively, that any workplace with more than one employee forms a network at a lot of different levels.  The more employees, the greater the complexity.  This is one of the most important things to us about where we work, isn’t it–the interactions we have on a daily basis?  For many individuals, one of the main perks of work is the chance to spend time and do productive things with like-minded, skilled people.  In knowledge-based industries especially, I think this is one of the most important things for the creative and the talented.

Given this, it’s possible to imagine that characterizing the network itself can be useful.  Biomarkers are routinely employed in biomedical research.  The network formed by the people at work may be a biomarker of organizational health.  It may be the expression of the overall robustness of the organization, just like the phenotype of a person is the ultimate expression of all the biological and chemical networks functioning inside her.  Step one, of course, is figuring out what that network looks like Continue reading

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