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The art and science of network weaving

In September 2012, Jon Kingsbury and I sent out an all-staff email to our Nesta colleagues inviting them to participate in an initiative we called Randomised Coffee Trials (RCTs) to encourage staff to speak and connect with co-workers outside their daily routines.

We never expected RCTs to be anything more than a pet project internal to Nesta, otherwise we might have chosen a more intuitive name. To our surprise, over the past three years it has been highlighted in Harvard Business Review[1] and led to initiatives at the National Health Service[2], the United Nations Development Program[3] and the International Federation for the Red Cross and Red Crescent[4] among many other organisations[5]. 

When Nesta published Institutionalising Serendipity via Productive Coffee Breaks in 2013 describing how we ran Randomised Coffee Trials internally, many organisations ran with the idea. To those early adopters the value was obvious: increased communication and connectivity, breaking down silos, and a more cohesive, nimble organisation. Over the years this initial hypothesis has been strengthened and extended as I have explored the work of organisational network science researchers including Ron Burt, Rob Cross, and Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland.

Organisations are increasingly using network tools to better understand how cohesive a network is and where there are isolated individuals or teams that do not speak to one another. These networks can be constructed with a range of different data sources that highlight relationships, whether through surveys, email metadata, sociometric badges, and peer reviews – each resulting in very different network maps.

"Serendipity is like one’s peripheral vision; as one turns to look, it continues to shift further out of one’s direct view."

There is an element of this which reminds me of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, On Exactitude in Science, where the art of cartography attained a level of perfection by laying across the entirety of the providence. Amidst this increasing sophistication of network maps, I argue that there is still a role for serendipity because of the impossibility of including everything into a model.

Serendipity is like one’s peripheral vision; as one turns to look, it continues to shift further out of one’s direct view. This is not to say that the quest is futile, but rather that we shouldn’t trick ourselves into thinking we have it all figured out. Perhaps more than anyone else I know, Greg Lindsay has explored the tensions inherent in the contradiction of engineering serendipity, and the myriad of interventions that have been tried to promote unplanned encounters in office spaces and cities.

What are some of the implications for individuals and organisations?

For individuals interested in what networks mean for them, the basic tenet is it is important to have a broad and diverse network. Make sure that you are open to the unexpected and focus on building relationships by helping others first. Adam Grant, author of Give and Take has highlighted both points via his description of “dormant ties,” where reconnecting with people one has lost touch with provides a wealth of information often because it provides a perspective from outside one’s immediate network. This of course only works if you have built a reservoir of goodwill with them in the past.

And while it is common to hear advice encouraging individuals to focus on building a better network, it surprises me that most organisations do not set this as a priority. Large organisations especially, are filled with underutilised internal resources because staff simply don’t know they exist. Examples abound of teams that are working on similar projects unaware of the other’s existence.

While one approach is to build a searchable database, or redesign the org chart, many organisations are playing with ideas like Randomised Coffee Trials to foster greater personal connections across the organisation for increased creativity and productivity. How is your organisation cultivating the relationships between its employees, customers and other stakeholders? If you’re running RCTs or are interested in running RCTs within your organisation, I’d love to hear from you.

Image by Luke Chesser via Unsplash


*Blog title: Here I have adopted June Holley’s term, for more information see www.networkweaver.com

[1] In the Age of Loneliness, Connections at Work Matter

[2] Think Differently: Nine Ways to Adopt Good Ideas for NHS Change

[3] Cyprus: The power of coffee, crafts and women

[4] Forging Global Unity with Randomised Coffee Trials (RCTs) at the Red Cross

[5] See knowledge management expert David Gurteen’s running list here.


Michael Soto

Michael Soto

Michael Soto

Guest blogger

Michael was part of the Innovation Skills team from September 2012 to January 2013, where he helped develop a learning platform for practitioners interested in innovation. He then unde…

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