PowerPulse

Developing and Implementing Employee Network Groups

by Peter Bye

Employee network and affinity groups each have unique characteristics—no two are alike.

There are, however, common planning and management techniques. Do you need to develop a business case or implementation plan for network or affinity groups? If so, consider the elements described below to ensure your efforts, and that of the groups, best fit your organization’s needs.

While implementations will vary, it is still helpful to state a definition of employee network groups to serve as a foundation for this article. An employee network group:

  • Is focused on the business-related issues of a particular group
  • Is open to all employees in the company
  • Has a local and/or national organizational structure with officers and holds periodic meetings
  • Has an overall mission aligned with your company’s business purpose
  • Is involved in member professional development activities, business partnerships, and community activities
  • Serves as a two-way communications channel with senior management, sensitizing management to employees’ concerns and communicating company messages to employees
  • And provides advice and counsel to management.

To build your business case, you need to consider the following:

The Group’s Value

Employee Network Groups (ENGs) can add significant value for the employees who participate, the external communities in which you interact, and your organization’s bottom-line results. Employees who participate in ENG meetings get unique networking and learning opportunities. Employees acquire practical project management skills by organizing professional development workshops and community involvement work. ENG officer and committee responsibilities provide leadership development opportunities that may expand far beyond the employee’s regular job. Consider the development opportunity for a middle manager who leads an ENG with 100 to 1,000 members!

Is community presence important to your company’s business success? ENG members are ideal ambassadors—as company representatives at marketing events, leaders of or participants in community projects, mentors in schools, and speakers at special events.

Business success requires that you understand and effectively meet your customers’ or clients’ needs. If you serve consumers, the diversity of your customer base is likely expanding. ENG members have unique knowledge of market segments that may be high growth potential for your products and services. ENGs are excellent in-house market research resources. They can also be of immense help in developing product/ service introduction plans to boost market share.

Determine which of these benefits of ENG participation are most relevant to your organization. Quantify them to help make the business case.

Plan Ahead

In recognizing groups as ENGs, there are various considerations that are best factored in up-front to make sure the network developed is appropriate for your organization.

1. What is your business need for introducing Employee Network Groups? If the sole purpose is internal work environment, you may need groups representing fewer communities. If you have an aggressive, highly segmented business marketing strategy, you may need many ENGs to reflect multiple market segments.

2. Do you allow ENGs to use the company logo and brand? This is most relevant when the ENGs do work outside the company (e.g., community presence or assistance with marketing or recruiting). If the company controls the events, this is an easy decision. If the ENG chooses its venues, you would have less control of use of the logo and brand. What restrictions would you place?

3. How much funding, if any, is provided to the groups? Consider your affordability along with the business purpose. If the groups do market research and/or marketing, your line organizations should provide funding. If the ENGs’ purpose is to help improve work environment, perhaps they should be funded by HR. If the ENGs provide training and professional development, training budgets can be tapped. Funding can come from multiple sources.

4. Once some groups are recognized and granted support, more groups will seek similar status. When do you stop? This is a trade-off between inclusion and resources. Each group recognized is a relationship to manage that requires time, money, and people. If the groups do involve extensive business partnerships, get senior line managers as champions who manage the relationships. Regardless, you will need human resources support to manage policy and detailed relationship issues. Figure that every 5-10 groups will require nearly one person in human resources as a full-time relationship manager.

5. What issues will be discussed? Part of the answer is in your business purpose, discussed earlier. Also consider limiting the nature of their efforts to advice, counsel, and communications about topics such as employee needs, business plans, and helping senior executives keep in touch with the needs of all employees. The group is not designed to negotiate terms and conditions of employment or work environment— that would infringe upon the rights of a union. Seek advice from your labor attorney. Above all, though, don’t let this particular issue stop you from moving forward with network groups. There is far too much potential value, and this concern is readily addressed.

Infrastructure

These groups will develop a natural and highly desirable interest in helping the company, the community, and employees. That takes communication, information, and relationships. The keys to making this happen? Repeat three times, “Managing employee network groups requires dedicated resources.” If you have any doubt, your best path is to not implement network groups.

Consider bringing the ENG leaders together with your corporate diversity team as a coordinating council. This gives you a venue through which to encourage partnering across the ENGs. Also consider establishing one or more senior managers as executive champions for each ENG. Have the champions collectively report their results to the CEO periodically. The CEO can meet with the combined group of ENG leaders once or twice per year. This creates:

  • A source of excellent learning for the executive champions
  • A link between the CEO and the ENGs
  • An advocate to help identify business partnership opportunities for the ENG, and to make appropriate introductions
  • A venue through which the champion can communicate her/his messages.

Potential Pitfalls

Yes, some may arise. Here are the major pitfalls with some thoughts about managing them:

What types of interests will we recognize as an ENG?

Some companies allow any group that is aligned with business purpose. Some allow any group except for those based solely on political, religious, or commercial interests. Most only recognize groups when there is a business need, and require alignment with business purpose, policy, and direction.

Why bother?

They just lead to divisiveness! By making membership in the groups open to all employees and having a firm business purpose for the groups, you can build awareness of the groups’ positive aspects. Expect and accept that there may be some level of residual discontent.

The ENGs might get too independent.

Certainly a valid concern. Manage the relationships, funding, and areas of involvement. Limit membership to employees. Perhaps include contractors.

Conclusion

By now you have given thought to the key questions and hopefully you have a good starting point for a successful plan to realize the many benefits available from a well-managed set of employee network groups.

About the Author: Peter Bye is the President of MDB Group, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in improving their clients’ business results and reputation. MDB Group's clients include companies ranging in size from small to Fortune 500 and not-for-profit organizations. MDB Group assists its clients by applying leading-edge thinking and expertise about how diversity and inclusion can drive leadership style and achieve meaningful business results.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Workforce Diversity Reader

Peter Bye