The Untapped Power of Informal Networks

Hilton Barbour
4 min readOct 24, 2021


The 1995 movie release of “Swingers” was a seminal moment for me and my group of Canadian friends. The swagger of Vince Vaughan, the bumbling moves of Jon Favreau, the Las Vegas setting, and the cute smile of Heather Graham, it was all just “so money baby”

In one pivotal scene with a casino waitress, Vince Vaughan introduces Jon Favreau as “the guy behind the guy, behind the guy”

At the time, my 20-something self thought that was the ultimate insult for any hot-blooded male. After all, doesn’t everyone want to be THE guy? The guy behind the guy is invisible, inconsequential, irrelevant. The guy behind the guy doesn’t get featured on the movie poster (truth, Favreau is not on the “Swingers” poster) and the guy behind the guy certainly never gets the girl.

He’s the unassuming person sitting quietly in the background. Watching, observing, taking notes.

No-one wants to be the guy behind the guy, do they?

In time I’ve learned how naïve and how painfully wrong I was.

You see the guy behind the guy is the real power player. He’s the one that everyone turns to see if the leader is being authentic or is full of BS. He’s the one that people trust. The one they go to when things are uncertain or unpredictable.

Inside an organization that very same dynamic occurs.

Inside an organization — any organization — there’s a group of people who are “the guy behind the guy”

The informal network you don’t see written on any org chart.

The informal network you seldom pay attention to.

The informal network that can make or break any change, any strategy, or any leadership directive you’re planning.

Consider your own actions for just a moment. You hear a piece of juicy corporate news or you’re trying to expedite a time-sensitive action through the perplexing labyrinth of your company bureaucracy, do you reach out to the EVP of Corporate Communications or the SVP of Global Procurement? Or do you frantically text Simon and Simone in your team? Or call your buddy Sarah in Accounting and offer to buy her morning coffee for a week if she’ll just-this-once-pretty-please?

We’re hardwired to do this. We learn this in the playground and all through life we connect and collect trusted confidantes from mechanics to plumbers to those who’ve read more, seen more, travelled more than we have.

They’re our go-to’s. And they exist inside our personal and our professional lives.

And the power and influence they wield is unmistakable.

In recent months I’ve become increasingly aware of the growing momentum behind this idea of informal networks inside organizations. And the immense — and incredibly obvious — power that they have to transform organizations.

In separate interviews with two of the largest Pharmaceutical organizations in the world — Roche and GSK Vaccines — they both referenced the significant investments they’ve made in mapping and activating these very powerful network.

Mapping and activating.

The mapping part falls under a process commonly known as Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) and, as the name suggests, it can help organizations visual these critical aspects of the organization.

Who “talks” to who?

Who is “connected” to who and how strong or weak those connections are?

Which business units, functions, geographies are connected or disconnected?

How connected is a particular age group, gender, race, level of tenure, level of seniority to the rest of the organization?

How connected is your current organization…and the organization you seek to acquire? How connected or siloed will those organizations be after your M&A?

Who are the “connectors” or “glue people” as we referred to them at Ogilvy? I’ll put even money that you’ll instinctively know many of them — and that many of the names will surprise you. In some cases, I think you may not even know they work for your organization.

In a world where Executives and CHRO’s are losing sleep over the complexities of WFH, Hybrid, Back-to-Office, how much better or worse will those initiatives be if you don’t know the informal network operating under the skin of your organization?

And, as organizations understand that “Flat” is the new hierarchy (thanks Dan Pontefract) and that leadership is going to revolve around the 3 A’s, the power and influence of connection and informal networks will only continue to grow and deepen.

Sweat not fearful leader, this is not a replacement for your structured org design, a codified set of functions, accountabilities, design rights and “official” channels. I’m not advocating a free-for-all where complete autonomy rules (though the good people at Haier have made quite a compelling case for that) but rather a complement.

Think about your increased agility and adaptability if you activate your connectors.

Think about your increased competitiveness if you can address those units that are disconnected or falling behind?

Think about the increased well-being and productivity of your entire organization if you could bolster their sense of connection?

Not to be crass but you could move from Vince “You’re so money baby” Vaughan to another of my movie icons — Jerry “Show me the money” McGuire.



The good people at Roche use my dear friends at Innovisor for their ONA

GSK Vaccines leveraged the excellent work of The Chalmfont Project to map their org.

If you want an ONA Primer, then this podcast with Tobias Sturrenson and Kevin Oakes is just brilliant.



Hilton Barbour

Networker. Marketing Provocateur. Loves travelling - love my 2 daughters more. Perpetually curious.