So let us start with a person we all know from work – the networking one, who not only knows all the coworkers who are natural to know, but also knows people far away in the organization. We often refer to people like that as brokers, because their position means that they can deliver useful information for work across the organization, in addition to gossip, of course. There are at least a few of them in any given workplace, and they can be a nuisance because of the suspicion that the networking they do helps them just as much as their work does – that they get ahead by talking, not working. Of course that suspicion is correct; researchers have known it for decades.
But there is more to the story, and there is new evidence from a paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Julien Clement, Andrew Shipilov, and Charles Galunic. They looked at how the brokers who connect to and also work in different communities affect the productivity of other workers in creative organizations – specifically, TV game show production. Now, creativity is one activity we know benefits from access to information elsewhere and from being a broker – again something we learned a decade ago, but only that the broker benefited, not whether the coworkers did. A study like this could show that the broker may seem like a nuisance but actually is a help because of the information brought in from afar.
That is almost true, but not quite. It turns out that brokers who also have commitments in the communities to which they connect help their nearby coworkers who are involved in creative tasks but not their other coworkers who need their contribution to production tasks. Most workers in any given organization are not creative workers; they do work that helps the operations of the organization. They make goods and services happen. Brokers are unlikely to be helpful for them, because they already know what they need to know, and the broker going around asking questions and sharing gossip is really not useful in any way. But maybe the broker is doing no harm, so their productivity is the same whether or not they have a broker nearby? Sorry, no such luck. It turns out the broker actually hurts the productivity of coworkers doing non-creative tasks.
Brokerage is an organizational task that helps the person doing it, helps creative people who are in touch with that person, and hurts the rest. The broker not only seems like a nuisance but is one too. This is a dilemma, of course, because organizations need ideas and action. Ultimately it is a familiar dilemma in all things organization: anything we can do to help one set of activities is likely to hurt different activities. Sounds like organizations need managers.