Since the dawn of time we’ve had groups. Communities would form around common locations or activities, and it was always possible to be part of multiple groups. Think of it as a Venn diagram with you at the intersection of many groups.
Groups in corporations have now taken on a life of their own. Hierarchical structures demand nested sub-groups. Matrix reporting is a band-aid solution to being part of multiple groups. Think about how groups morph into e-mail distribution lists – it’s more about keeping other people out than creating a shared sense of purpose.
Enterprise social networks allow groups, and the first reaction is to mirror the organisational hierarchy and distribution lists that people work so hard to keep up-to-date. So many people ask on Yammer whether it is possible to import all their distribution lists into Groups. Resist that temptation!
What if groups were not based on hierarchy, but used to shield ideas from threat? Lockheed created the Skunk Works group not because they needed another reporting line, but because the ideas within that group weren’t mature enough for wider consumption.
Luke Buckle talked recently at the Swarm conference about nested groups for collaboration. The concept is that designers use an inner group to brainstorm, and the result of the brainstorm is eventually shared with a broader group (including the client).
Within an organisation the same strategy can apply. A single team can work to streamline processes. Nobody works in a vacuum, and changes to processes often have flow-on effects. Engaging all those flow-on stakeholders too early is the quickest way to kill an idea. The role of that team is to develop the idea, shielding it from threat, until it is mature enough to make sense to other stakeholders. Then, by all means, engage far and wide.
Rather than think about groups as needing to mirror an arbitrary business structure, think about them as a place to nurture ideas. If that happens to be the same as the reporting line structure, then all the better. Using this approach gets you back to the original definition – members having a shared sense of purpose.