Originally published June 10, 2022
This is the 80th article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. Rob Cross is an author, professor, and researcher who has studied the underlying networks of effective organizations and the collaborative practices of high performers. Working with more than 300 organizations and reaching thousands of leaders, he has identified specific ways to cultivate vibrant, effective networks at all levels of an organization and at any career stage.
Through research and writing, speaking and consulting, and courses and tools, Rob’s network strategies help transform the way people lead, work and live in a hyper-connected world. He is the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Rob is also the co-founder and director of the Connected Commons, a consortium of over 150 leading organizations accelerating network research and practice.
He has written over 50 articles for Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, California Management Review, Academy of Management Executive and Organizational Dynamics. His work has also been repeatedly featured in Business Week, Fortune, The Financial Times, Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CIO, Inc. and Fast Company.
A graduate of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce (where he later taught), Rob earned an MBA from UVA’s Darden School and completed doctoral work at Boston University. Rob specializes in agility, well-being, innovation, collaboration, and network analysis.
I met Rob at Babson College at a Working Knowledge Research Center conference led by Tom Davenport and Larry Prusak. HP and Deloitte both participated in The Network Roundtable, led by Rob. When I was at HP, we invited Rob’s co-author, Andrew Parker, to lead a workshop for us, An Introduction to Social Network Analysis.
- 1985–1989, University of Virginia, Bachelor of Science (Business Administration)
- 1992–1994, University of Virginia, Master of Business Administration
- 1996–2001, Boston University School of Management, DBA (Organizational Behavior and Information Technology)
- 2017-Present, Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership, Babson College
- 2005-Present, Founder and Chief Research Scientist, Connected Commons
- 2008–2017, McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia
- 1999–2001, IBM Research Manager
- 1994–1996, Arthur Andersen, Business Consulting Manager
- Lead Better, Work Better, Live Better
- Network Insights Blog
- White Papers
- Articles and Interviews
- Connected Commons
- LinkedIn Articles
- LinkedIn Posts
- Google Scholar
- Semantic Scholar
- MIT Sloan Management Review
- Strategies for Preventing a Knowledge-Loss Crisis with Salvatore Parise and Thomas Davenport
- Building a Well-Networked Organization with Margaret Schweer, Dimitris Assimakopoulos, and Robert J. Thomas
- Managing Collaboration: Improving Team Effectiveness Through a Network Perspective with Ross Dawson, John Helferich, and Kate Ehrlich
- Harvard Business Review
- Collaborative Overload with Reb Rebele and Adam Grant
- How to Succeed Quickly in a New Role with Greg Pryor and David Sylvester
- A Practical Guide to Social Networks with Jeanne Liedtka and Leigh Weiss
- A bird’s-eye view: Using social network analysis to improve knowledge creation and sharing with Andrew Parker and Stephen Borgatti
- Investing in Boundary-Spanning Collaboration to Drive Efficiency and Innovation with Chris Ernst, Dimitris Assimakopoulos, and Daniel Ranta
- 3 Ways to Collaborate More Efficiently and Avoid Burnout
- 9 skills that will help you get promoted faster and receive top performance reviews
- Are you suffering from collaboration overload? 9 beliefs and fears that help drive it
- Using Social Network Analysis to Improve Communities of Practice with Tim Laseter, Andrew Parker, and Guillermo Velasquez
- A Noble Purpose Alone Won’t Transform Your Company: Leadership Behaviors That Nurture Interpersonal Collaboration are the True Drivers of Change with Amy Edmondson and Wendy Murphy
- To Be Happier at Work, Invest More in Your Relationships
- The Craft of Connection with Tim Lasseter
- Making Invisible Work Visible Using Social Network Analysis to Support Strategic Collaboration with Stephen Borgatti and Andrew Parker
- What is Organizational Network Analysis (ONA)?
The People Who Make Organizations Go — or Stop with Laurence Prusak
Managers invariably use their personal contacts when they need to, say, meet an impossible deadline or learn the truth about a new boss. Increasingly, it’s through these informal networks — not just through traditional organizational hierarchies — that information is found and work gets done.
After analyzing informal networks at more than 50 large organizations over the past five years, we’ve identified four common role-players whose performance is critical to the productivity of any organization. First, there are central connectors, who link most people in an informal network with one another. Then there are boundary spanners, who connect an informal network with other parts of the company or with similar networks in other organizations. Information brokers keep the different subgroups in an informal network together. Finally, there are peripheral specialists, who anyone in an informal network can turn to for specialized expertise.
Knowing What We Know: Supporting Knowledge Creation and Sharing in Social Networks with Andrew Parker, Laurence Prusak, and Stephen Borgatti
Crafting an Answer
“So the call came in late on Thursday afternoon and right away I wished I hadn’t answered the phone. We had received a last-second opportunity to bid on a sizable piece of work that the Partner on the other end of the line really wanted to pursue. I had no clue how to even begin looking for relevant methodologies or case examples, so my first move was to tap into my network to find some relevant info and leads to other people or databases. And I relied pretty heavily on this group over the next couple of days. Seth was great for pointing me to other people and relevant information, Paul provided ideas on the technical content of the project while Jeff really helped in showing me how to frame the client’s issues in ways that we could sell. He also helped navigate and get buy-in from the client given his knowledge of their operations and politics… I mean the whole game is just being the person that can get the client what they need with [the firm’s] resources behind you. This almost always seems to mean knowing who knows what and figuring out a way to bring them to bear on your client’s issue.” — Anonymous Interviewee
A critical resource embedded within organizations is the knowledge that workers bring to work on a day-to-day basis. However, aside from human resource policies targeted to the attraction, development and retention of identified valuable workers, there has been little effort put into systematic ways of working with the knowledge that is embedded in social networks. Given the extent to which people rely on their own knowledge and the knowledge of their contacts to solve problems, this is a significant shortcoming. By introducing social network analysis to understand how a given network of people create and share knowledge, we are able to make these interactions visible and so actionable. In applying these ideas in various organizations, we have found it particularly important to identify points of knowledge creation and sharing within an organization that hold strategic relevance.
Typical domains yielding benefit include senior management networks, communities of practice and collaborative initiatives such as new product development, R&D units or joint ventures and alliances. It is particularly fruitful to map collaborative relationships that cross boundaries of some form. Such boundaries might be hierarchical, functional, geographical, or even organizational, as in joint venture or merger and acquisition scenarios. Understanding how knowledge flows (or more frequently does not flow) across these various boundaries within an organization can yield critical insight into where management should target efforts to promote collaboration that has a strategic payoff for the organization.
Articles by Others
- Win Trust with Employees by Doing This by Steve Watkins
- McKinsey Author Talks: Beyond collaboration overload by Tom Fleming
- Connected Commons — A Consortium Co-Managed by Rob Cross and i4cp
In The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations, Rob Cross and Andrew Parker describe the benefits of using SNA, including:
- Improving effectiveness of functions or business units. SNA can help leaders assess the extent to which collaborations throughout their unit are aligned with strategic objectives and generating measurable business value.
- Promoting lateral coordination throughout an organization. SNA can help identify opportunities in networks that span functions, geographies, or process steps.
- Driving innovation in new product development, R&D, or market-facing functions. SNA can isolate how and where leveraging expertise in a network will either support or impede innovation efforts.
- Facilitating large-scale change or merger integration. SNA pre-change can identify key players to work through and retain. During the change, it can inform key interventions. After the change, it can ensure appropriate integration.
- Supporting Communities of Practice. SNA can help to rapidly form and improve effectiveness of communities by working through the network to more efficiently improve collaboration and business results.
- Forming strategic partnerships or assessing client connectivity. SNA can illuminate the effectiveness of external ties to strategic partners or clients in terms of information flow, knowledge transfer, and decision-making.
- Talent management and leadership development. SNA can help improve leadership effectiveness and replicate high performance throughout an organization.
That organizational charts rarely describe functional hierarchy is obvious to any employee who’s ever tried to adhere to one. Instead, survival often depends on incorporating oneself into unofficial social networks that allow one to gain access to necessary information and to collaborate with the colleagues who can actually get things done. By literally mapping information flow and collaboration patterns among the people who make up a department or firm, it is possible to pinpoint individual bottlenecks, essential employees and those who have been pushed to the periphery or whose expertise is underutilized. Social network analysis enables managers to adapt their strategies to exploit and support these now visible networks and improve overall productivity.
SIKM Leaders Community
- Discussion Thread — New book: Beyond Collaboration Overload
- Reference Database Question by Valdis Krebs
Rob Cross talks about several factors that are necessary to effectively transfer knowledge between people.
- I must be aware of what you know — here an updated database can help.
- I must have access to you. I must know you or have the opportunity to be introduced to you. You must be available.
- I must feel comfortable with you, and you with me. There must be some level of trust.
- We must both have the time, energy, and commitment to see this through. Most knowledge transfer is not: “The answer is 42.”
- Great Leaders Lead — with Eric Harkins
- How To Prevent Collaboration Overload with Diane Hamilton
- unSILOed Podcast with Greg LaBlanc
- How Network Analysis Can Improve Your Collaborative Process and Prevent Burnout with Halelly Azulay
- Breaking Free from Collaboration Overload with Stew Friedman
- Collaboration Overload with Gayle Allen
- Excessive Collaboration with Adi Ignatius
- Preventing Collaboration Overload with Gartner Talent Angle
- How to Overcome Collaboration Overload with Siobhan Fagan and Mike Prokopeak
- How Can You Reduce Collaborative Overload? with David Green
- Performance & Well-Being in a Hyper-Connected World
- A Brawl Not a Ballet
- Creating Kevin Bacon’s Network
- Being an Energizer
- The Secret of Ten Percenters
- Reducing Micro Stresses
- How to Lead for Productive Collaboration and Overcome Collaboration Overload with Mahan Tavakoli
- Collaborative Practices of Successful Leaders with Al Adamsen
- Driving Results Through Social Networks: How Top Organizations Leverage Networks for Performance and Growth with Robert J. Thomas