Bringing home the Bacons?

McKinsey have just put out an interesting piece on the use of "snowball" survey techniques to identify key (and often hidden) influencers within the workforce. The proposition underlying the piece is that, within every organisation, there are key people in the workforce (and possibly outside it?) that operate as key influencers. These are the people other employees look to for advice, guidance or inspiration and whose views about workplace change are therefore likely to have a disproportionate impact on how the workforce as a whole responds to change. These key influencers may be at any level in the organisation. Position in the hierarchy does not correspond to degree of influence. If management can win them over, it will be much easier for them to win over the workforce as a whole.

So far, so good. Surely it makes sense for management to identify these key influencers, tailor its communications to them and thus amplify its message among the wider workforce? This is the essence of any communications or marketing strategy – find out where target customers gain their information and advice from, and work to influence them.

Nevertheless, it seems to me there are a few small concerns that organisations would be advised to consider before using this technique.

The first is presentational. Using a "simple survey technique originally devised by social scientists to study street gangs, drug users and sex workers" might, one imagines, set the wrong tone.

A second is what it says about the competence of management: "You're having to ask us who the key people are, don't you know that already?"

A third is that might be seen as a signal that management doesn't believe in the effectiveness of whatever channels it uses to communicate with, and receive feedback from, the workforce.

A fourth is that its effectiveness will depend on the integrity and benevolence of management as judged by employees. The management narrative might one of key influencers being people who it needs to win over and thus amplify (positive) messages about change. An alternative narrative might be that management are engaged on a search and destroy mission – key influencers are "troublemakers" to be neutralised or eliminated. Anyone who believes there is even the possibility of the latter would refuse to take part.

And finally, the influence of a "key influencer" may disappear at a stroke if management identify them as a key influencer (or if other people think they have been identified as a key influencer).

Hence application of these techniques could only work where there is already a high degree of trust in senior management. And we know this is not the general case. A recent CIPD report on trust found that less than a third of employees trust senior management. And where trust is already high, the approach is probably unnecessary in any case.

Now it might be possible to use alternative techniques that do not involve any direct approach to employees. Judicious analysis of workplace electronic communications and social media might reveal patterns and connections that can identify the "Kevin Bacons" within the organisation (those people connected directly and indirectly to just about everyone). But again, trust comes to the fore. If employees think management are using the results of their interactions for undesirable or illegitimate ends, they will communicate through some other means – which might undermine the effectiveness of those communications mechanisms.

The bottom line is that trust is critical. Technology provides no easy means of compensating for it, or route to building it or retaining it. And while key influencers probably exist in every organisation, they might well best remain hidden.

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