The promise of Social Network Analysis


Photo courtesy of quinn.anya

Here is a fact: Organizations are a set of interwoven networks, embedded in bigger networks. They thrive or die according to their networks’ health. And while most organizations are aware of that, few ever act with a network-aware mind.

A social network approach is primarily concerned with the interconnections between [actors], rather than being focused on their attributes or behaviors. The patterning of such connections – the configuration of positions and relationships – constitutes the structure of a social network, from which the social behavior of individual members can be analyzed and interpreted. This structural arrangement has important implications for the [actors] involved as well as for the overall social network, insofar as it enhances or constrains their access and control abilities.

~Emergent Leadership in Virtual Collaboration Settings: A Social Network Analysis Approach. J. Sutanto, C. Tan, B. Battistini et al

Thinking organizations as networks relies on different lenses:

– A micro lens zooms on the employee and his ego-centric network
– A macro lens xrays the interactions between different subgroups of the organization (business units, project teams…)
– A holistic lens studies the organization taking into account its context (socio-economic context, partners, …)

Each lens requires different network measures and concepts. And each lens answers a different set of questions. Example: The HR department needs to know how the new recruits are doing after 6 months of hiring them. A viable approach would be to conduct an ego-centric network analysis on the recruits. The main objective is to identify the ties among the new recruits and other employees. If the recruits are still peripheral it’s time to take action to help them integrate. Launching an internal mentorship program for instance can help new recruits meet key collaborators that could help them advance their work and nurture a sense of belonging.

Thinking organizations as networks doesn’t necessarily come with extraordinarily out-of-the-box answers but it surely sheds the lights on problems from a different angle. The emergent body of research and application of Social Network Analysis has provided some important insights on how thinking with a network perspective can be associated with organizational benefits (better collaboration, enhanced innovation etc.). However, there always seems to be quite a chasm between academia and corporate business and many techniques developed by the research community still haven’t made it in the real-world yet. An interesting classification I came across the other day aims to cross this gap to some extent as it tries to map SNA techniques to business processes. The framework is based on the APQC Process Classification Framework and lists the various uses of social network analysis depending on the business process at hand (Operating or Management and support process).

Source: Social Network Analysis and Mining for Business Applications. F. Bonchi, C. Castillo, A. Gionis, and A Jaimes, Yahoo! Research Barcelona 

I have come to think of this framework as a good list of the promises Social Network Analysis makes. While it is true that many techniques stated above are still in their infancy and face numerous technical and cultural challenges, it is only a good thing to keep an eye on their progress. You may never know when the opportunity of applying them presents itself.
We will go into the details of these techniques and the challenges they face on our upcoming blog posts. Until then have a look at your business processes and see if any of these techniques would fit. We would love to hear your feedback!

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