Understanding how businesses function as human networks is key to creating more connected and collaborative workforces, says Rachel Whale

Silo working remains prevalent across all sectors – if the results of our recent study of 550 HR managers are anything to go by – and efforts to break them down are often unsuccessful.

By perpetuating an ‘us and them’ culture, siloed working practices are the most common obstacle to effective internal communication. Yet no one chooses to work in this way. We haven’t deliberately created silos, and I don’t think they make anyone happy.

Talent development should provide an unusual opportunity to break down silos, and to help organisations connect internally across everyday boundaries such as role, department or grade. But instead, our research has found that HR leaders thought traditional approaches to talent development were perpetuating, rather than breaking down, the silos that affect them.

So what are we getting wrong, and how could we reshape our approach to talent development to combat this culture of internal disconnect? Having worked in talent development for more than 20 years, I am convinced that we need to understand and map our organisations as human networks, and then select interventions that are proven to increase connectivity.

We find that even when a business knows it is suffering from disconnected working, it rarely knows what those disconnections look like, who they affect or how they can be broken down.

Using network analysis, you can visualise the relationships and connections in an organisation. You can see a picture of, and assess the relationships between, different parts of an organisation, find ways of developing and using connections, and measure the success of any work you do.

It’s fascinating to identify the ‘super connectors’ or ‘bridge builders’ – the people who, regardless of their job title, hold the rest of the network together and ensure information flows. The mapping of ‘mini worlds’ across a workforce helps you understand where the critical points of disconnect exist. Most importantly, it creates a compelling baseline picture of the organisation right now as a complex series of human relationships and a story that can be tracked as it changes over time.

Once you have a clear idea of how your company is working, and where the divisions exist, you can focus your talent development on what to do about it. Here are three tools I’ve seen work well:

Organising development around social purpose

With employee recruitment and engagement increasingly driven by the desire to have a social purpose, the opportunity to be part of some bigger movement or narrative is a potent way of bringing people together. Organising talent development around a key social issue that affects your organisation or your staff can be a really useful way of building relationships across a business. If you are working with a mission-driven organisation, this might be as simple as making the cause part of any training.

Vertical action learning sets

Action learning is a group approach to problem-solving. While action learning sets are often made up of ‘horizontal’ groups of peers, they can be put together ‘vertically’, meaning people from different levels of the organisation come together. By bringing together different perspectives on problems, at the same time as building relationships across an organisation, we’ve seen vertical action learning sets have huge benefits in breaking down ‘us and them’ mentalities between different teams, and building a more comprehensive understanding of vision and mission. The same principle can be applied to any part of your talent development strategy.

Peer coaching programmes

By the same token, you can use skills development to create relationships between specific people and teams. Peer coaching programmes, for example, match people from different parts of an organisation to learn coaching by working with each other over a period of time. As such, they combine an opportunity for your staff to learn an important management technique, while also working with a peer they might not have otherwise connected with.

The more we can use talent development to promote connection and collaboration at all levels of our workforces, the more successful we will be in creating businesses that are more than the sum of their parts.

This process is complex, and success in achieving it depends on lots of things. But it starts with understanding organisations as networks of people, along with a clear picture of how those networks function, and how they need to change. Once that is in place, the easier it will be to identify how talent development can contribute to joining up the dots.

Rachel Whale is founder and CEO of Koreo