Why tapping into the power of staff networks benefits an organisation

In the second of two interviews, The Power of Staff Networks founder Cherron Inko-Tariah reveals how employee networks can benefit organisations and staff. She also provides expert tips on what makes good staff networks, the pitfalls to avoid and how to overcome the hurdles involved in setting them up.

Cherron, how does a staff network benefit an organisation?

Firstly, staff networks are a group of employees who know your business, who know the clients, patients, customers and end users; they understand the culture of the organisation. Secondly, they’ve realised that certain groups of people cannot fulfil their true potential because there’s a problem with the system, processes or procedures. And thirdly, they are looking to identify how to plug that gap and, in doing so, help not only their members but also others who have fallen foul of the system.

This all helps an organisation to be corporately healthier and, as a result, more attractive to recruits. And if people like where they work, they will stay. The psychological contract kicks in even more; they’re more innovative and productive – which in return helps you with your bottom line.

I know of staff networks that have saved their organisations money because they’ve identified ways of doing a service for less – and to the same quality, if not better. Now if I’m a CEO, a vice chancellor or a permanent secretary I want that in my organisation.

Was that success down to the representation of people on the network or because they thought differently about things?

I think it was a combination of both. The people involved in staff networks usually work across the organisation in various roles, and so sometimes the savvy networks will seek to identify a problem and then look to fix it using a solution that’s going to work for the organisation, as well as help people at the grassroots or in the community. So, they join all those dots together and think about what they can do within their realm of skills and competencies, and who they might need to help them do more.

The more successful networks align what they do with the organisation. If you’re a CEO or a board member faced with challenges or questions that keep you awake at night, and this group of people then comes to you with solutions, would you not listen to them? Of course you would. Then when you have another problem, the network will be one of the first ports of call because you recognise that they bring some value.

Should diversity and inclusion be taken out of the equation in favour of diversity of thought and skills?

Even groups that share an affinity have diversity of thought and skills but that doesn’t mean that there is inclusion in the workplace. Inclusion generates diversity of thought, innovation and productivity.   

I recognise that networks usually start in the diversity and inclusion space and I often say to networks that you don’t have to limit yourself to this. 

What are the key principles for an employee network?

The beautiful thing about staff networks is that they are multi-faceted and multi-functional so summing up the key principles is difficult. But I would say that networks need to see themselves as a product – a system within a system or a business within a business.

Why does it exist? What will have changed as a result of their work? Why should people join? What’s in it for them and the organisation? The reason you choose one gym over another, or one restaurant instead of another, is because the offer is attractive to you. The same principle applies to an employee network. When people tell me that they struggle to get others involved in the network and blame external factors, I strongly recommend that they look at the product on offer, its benefits and accessibility.

Don’t some staff networks just think of themselves as social organisations?

Yes, and that’s fine; you can call yourself a social network, just don’t call yourself an employee network and want all the benefits and the kudos that comes with that. If you keep looking at it as a social thing on the periphery, you will never fully tap into your power as a network. 

What are the main things to consider when setting up a staff network?

Firstly, identify what the problem is and the evidence to support it. If people struggle with that, I say hit the pause button until you can answer that question satisfactorily.

Secondly, determine who you need in the organisation to support this, to sponsor it properly. Think about who has their strategic antenna tuned in to what’s going on? They should be reasonably senior.

I think the third thing is to test the waters, find out what other people say. Who would be against this and why?

Also, find out who else in your sector is doing it, what you can learn and the resources you can borrow from them because you want to make this as easy as, but still effective, as possible.

Next, you need to do some vision casting – what’s your work plan, the mission statement? Then, for me, it’s about getting those nuts and bolts in place. What’s the governance looking like? Who’s going to be sitting on the peer executive team talking about this? How are you going to work together as a team? What’s your team charter? All these steps are essential, but people try and skip some of them. Once the network is set up, you need to build momentum with a succession of different events and activities because excitement dissipates very quickly.

How easy is it to keep momentum going?

It depends on your work plan; it depends on your mission statement. Because people will suffer from mission drift if the mission that they started with hasn’t been reviewed or revised, or doesn’t go at the same pace as the organisation.

What makes a good network?  

Where they have changed or influenced policy, or where a procedure has changed because of a conversation or something that the staff network has pointed out. Where the end user receives more benefit as a result of something the staff network has identified. Some networks have got accolades, but when you look behind the scenes, they’re not really developing each other. They have a Chair in place for 15 years, what’s that about?

Do they have a succession plan in place? How do they look after each other, and develop? How are people in the network using it to learn new skills and how is it working with its stakeholders? These small things constitute a good, sustainable and effective network. And, in terms of career, I’ve seen people who have progressed as a result of their work in the network.

Are they normally the ones with the loudest voice?

No. If someone’s good at their job they’re usually going to be really good in the network and that’s who you want. People who know how to ‘slay in their lane’ or are prepared to learn new skills and competencies will help the network progress forward. Some of the most effective networks are led by people who are quieter or introverted but they are supported by others that have a different personality type. Staff networks need a diversity of people.

What are the main challenges that people face in trying to set up network?

I think there are a few things. Number one, the organisation just isn’t ready to receive the network or what the network has to say. There’s concern around time; people feel their involvement in the network can be frowned upon or even limited or restricted. That happens a lot in the public sector.  It’s almost as if they must justify why they’re involved. If you do a cost-benefit analysis people can’t see why they should pour in all this hard work for very little outcome. But even if the organisation isn’t ready but the people are willing and strategic, they can still make some inroads. 

To sum up, there are five things to consider which I included in the Power of Staff Networks: what’s your purpose, what are the opportunities, how do you work together with wisdom, so you’re all rowing in the same direction, manage expectations and be responsible. If you skip any of those it can cause a crack in your foundation and rob the network if its power.

>See also: Cherron Inko-Tariah: be a chess player, not a chess piece

Cherron Inko-Tariah is the author of The Incredible Power of Staff Networks and founder of The Power of Staff Networks consultancy. A former civil servant, she is an accomplished chair of several staff networks and is passionate about the positive impact they can have on employees and the organisation. Cherron was awarded an MBE in 2011 for services to HM Government and her local community.