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What can virus control teach us about collaboration?

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It is increasingly common for organizations to attempt to map the various movements and engagements their employees undertake.  Software such as SYNAPP from Philosophy IB for instance allow organizations to create network diagrams of the flow of information through their workforce.  The aim is to provide a better understanding of who is working with who, and whether information and knowledge flows across the organization or gets stuck within silos.

A recent study from researchers in France has attempted to do a similar thing, but rather than looking at the flow of information, they’ve looked at the spread of disease within a workplace.  The belief was that if they understood how we move around an office building, it will give us a much better understanding of how to stop epidemics from spreading.

The researchers studied the physical interactions between employees in an office building near Paris over a two week period.  The building hosts a range of departments, from research and development to HR and logistics.

Each employee was equipped with wearable sensors that would track their movements, and subsequently, their proximity to colleagues, although the sensors were only able to detect this when employees were stood face to face, at a relatively close distance from one another.

Once the analysis was complete, the researchers devised a network map showing the interactions each node (employee) had during the two week data collection period.

So, what did they discover?  Well, it emerged that departmental silos are pretty pervasive, with employees typically clustered according to their particular department.  The vast majority of contact with colleagues was limited to those within their department, with the average employee interacting with just 15 other people.

As you can imagine however, there are some that buck the trend, and the analysis discovered that some employees traveled much further.  Indeed, some were discovered to have had more contact with those in other departments than in their own.  These were of particular interest from a viral point of view, but could also be of specific interest when it comes to spreading ideas and knowledge.

They aren’t the keys however.  That honour belongs to a group of people the researchers call ‘linkers’.  These are employees that split their contacts roughly down the middle.  So half will be within their own department, and half will be with those outside it.  They act as bridges in the network, and the researchers suggest are most likely to spread disease.

To prove their hypothesis, the researchers used standard models of infection, which showed to highlight the important role linkers play.

How can you identify linkers?

So how do you figure out who these magical linkers are?  Whilst the researchers admitted that the best way is to perform the same kind of network analysis they performed, and that companies like PhilosophyIB offer, they also offered up an easier alternative.

They suggested that you may be able to identify these characters from their job descriptions.  So for instance, people whose job involves traveling between departments is an obvious candidate.I’m not convinced that is a particularly reliable method, and with network mapping increasingly affordable, it doesn’t really seem worthwhile to take the cheaper, and less effective, route.  In an age of increasing collaboration across the organization, it is crucial that we understand just how employees engage with one another.Who would be the linkers in your own workplace?

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