Formal Small Group Networks

Formal organizational networks can be very complicated. They can for instance, include hundreds of people and a half dozen or more hierarchical levels. To simplify our discussion, we’ve condensed these networks into three common small groups of five people each. These three networks are the chain, wheel, and all-channel. Although these three networks have been extremely simplified, they do allow us to describe the unique qualities of each.

The chain rigidly follows the formal chain of command. This network approximates the communication channels you might find in a rigid three level organization. The wheel relies on a central figure to act as the conduit for all of the group’s communication. It simulates the communication network you would find on a team with a strong leader. The all channel network permits all group members to actively communicate with each other. The all channel network is most often characterized in practice by self managed teams, in which all group members are free to contribute and to one person takes on a leadership role.

The effectiveness of each network depends on the dependent variable you’re concerned about For instance, the structure of the wheel facilitates the emergence of a leader, the all channel network is best if you are concerned with having high member satisfaction ad the chain is best if accuracy is most important.

The formal system is not the only communication network in a group or organization. There is also an informal one, which is called the grapevine. And although the grapevine may be informal, this doesn’t mean it’s not an important source of information. For instance, a survey found that 75 percent of employees hear about matters first though rumors on the grapevine.

The grapevine has three main characteristics. First, it is not controlled by management. Second, it is perceived by most employees as being more believable and reliable than formal communiqués issued by top management. And third, it is largely used to serve the self interests of the people within it.

One of the most famous studies of the grapevine investigated the communication pattern among 67 managerial personnel in a small manufacturing firm. The basic approach used was to learn from each communication recipient how he or she first received a given piece of information and then trace it back to its source It was found that, while the grapevine was an important source of information, only 10 percent of the executives acted as liaison individuals that is, passed the information one to more than one other person. For example, when one executive decided to resign to enter the insurance business, 81 percent of the executives knew about it but only 11 percent transmitted this information to others.

Two other conclusions from this study area also worth information on events of general interest trended to flow between the major functional groups (production, sales) rather than within them. Also, evidence surfaced to suggest that any one group consistently acted as liaisons rather different types of information passed through different liaisons.

An attempt to replicate this study among employees in a small state government office also found that only 10 percent act as liaison individuals. This finding is interesting, because the replication contained a wider spectrum of employees, including operative as well as managerial personnel. But the flow of information in the government office took place within, rather than between functional groups. It was proposed that this discrepancy might be due to comparing an executive only sample against one that also included operative workers. Managers, for example might feel greater pressure to stay informed and thus cultivate others outside their group.

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