Social Network Analysis: an introduction

Any social organisation from the smallest team to the largest enterprise carries with it a social network. Until recently these social networks were largely invisible to the organisations which depended on them. Now Social Network Analysis or SNA is a hot topic but what is it, where did it come from and how does it work: Richard Cross, Guest Author, explains.

Keep the Network Flowing – capitalising on how work really gets done

In today’s connected organisations, collaboration in networks is critical to innovation and individual as well as organisation effectiveness. Paradoxically these networks are taken for granted, frequently invisible and rarely managed.
With roots in anthropological African studies the sophisticated simplicity of Social Networking Analysis (SNA) – boosted by the internet revolution – is rapidly gaining momentum as a powerful technique to improve individual and organisation effectiveness.
This article provides an introduction to the area.

A rough history of Social Network Analysis

Social networking dates back to anthropological studies of the effect of urbanisation in Africa. The term itself was first coined in the 1950’s by Professor J A Barnes who, influenced by this work, studied social ties in a Norwegian fishing village, concluding that the whole of social life could be seen as ‘a set of points, some of which are joined by lines’ to form a ‘total network’ of relations.
Dr Moreno, a US-based social scientist extended these insights through development of the sociogram – a diagram of points and lines used to represent relations among persons. Moreno used them to identify social leaders and ‘isolates’, to uncover asymmetry and reciprocity in friendship choices, and to map chains of indirect connection. One of the familiar configurations he observed was the sociometric star – everybody’s friend.
Scientists and mathematicians built on these ideas, investigating ways in which people get jobs, become leaders and develop friendships. One group at Harvard translated concepts from the social sciences, such as the notion of ‘social role’ into mathematical form that allowed them to be measured and modelled.
With a distinguished, though esoteric pedigree as a respected technique in the social sciences popularised through a 1974 book ‘Getting a job’, where connections were crucial, interest has been rekindled through the rise of social software and best sellers such as Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’ with the notions of Connectors who know everyone, Mavens ‘Experts who love to teach’ and social networks dramatically impacting societal trends as catalysts of social epidemics.

Social Networks enter the corporate arena

Since the work of Mayo in the 1930’s and his association with the Hawthorne Effect there has been an acknowledgement of the role of the informal structure within an organisation in challenging the supremacy of the formal organisation chart.
From the early 1990’s the ascendancy of knowledge and globalisation capabilities afforded by technology has created new organisation and work models that contrast sharply with the command and control hierarchical structure of the industrial era.
Flatter, more flexible and organic organisations are now pervasive and the context of work has been significantly changed as we have moved from the workplace of the past to the workspace of the present.
Added to this there has been a rapid growth in work across organisation as well as geographic boundaries – with outsourcing, off-shoring, virtual organisations and business process networks.
Combined with these organisational changes, trends such as the rise of blogs, online communities and social networking sites – such as Friendster and Linkedin as well as the rapid growth of collaborative software – have all contributed to the emergence of Social Network Analysis (SNA) from the academic closet.

The Power of Networks

As applied in an organisational setting, Social Network Analysis (SNA) can be defined as a set of techniques underpinned by statistical analysis that make visible the hidden connections that are important for sharing information, decision-making and innovation in an organisation.
The outcome helps diagnose where collaboration has collapsed or cliques have been cultivated, where talent and expertise could be better leveraged, where decisions are swimming in treacle or where opportunities for innovation are being lost.
The data from an SNA provides a picture or map resembling a viral structure or ant like pattern of relationships that enables a set of actions for individuals and organisations to improve productivity, efficiency and innovation. Viewed in a number of different ways analysis of social network diagrams helps determine the extent to which certain people are central to effective network functioning (as well as dysfunctional).

Unveiling how knowledge work really gets done

The pioneering work of Rob Cross, assistant Professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce has been pivotal in raising the profile of SNA.
Written with Andrew Parker, the book ‘The Hidden Power of Social Networks – understanding how work really gets done in organisations’ is the definitive work on the subject. Based on studies of over 60 informal networks within organisations around the world their work provides a practical guide on how to translate organisation network analysis into better organisation performance.
Cross and Parker found that even though networks in organisations are pervasive, it is rare for executives to focus on them. They cite research that provides consistent evidence that well-managed network connectivity is critical to performance innovation and learning.
In one study for example, working with the MIT they assessed network patterns and performances of temporary teams engaged in new product development or process improvement. They found that teams whose networks kept team-mates from connecting with each other – such as teams focussed on a boss or ones that had split into smaller subgroups – were significantly worse performers than those in which team-mates could leverage one or another’s expertise seamlessly.
In another study of a consulting organisation they showed how employees’ personal networks can provide an important lever for improving performance. They learned that technology use and individual expertise did not distinguish people as high performers.
Consistent with other research findings, in which more diversified networks are associated with early promotion, career mobility and managerial effectiveness they found that what distinguished high performers were larger and more diversified networks.

Common Application Areas and examples of SNA

Cross and Parker argue that rather than pursue initiatives that create indiscriminate connections managers who target strategic points in social networks can quickly increase an organisations effectiveness. Within organisations they identify High-impact Social Network application areas:

  • Supporting partnerships and alliances
  • Assessing strategy execution
  • Improving strategic decision-making in top leadership networks
  • Integrating networks across core processes
  • Promoting innovation
  • Ensuring integration post-merger or large-scale change
  • Developing Communities of Practice

Table 1: Common Social Network Applications

Social Network Analysis in Practice

In part 2 of this article, Social Network Analysis in practice, I introduce how Social Network Analysis works in practice.

About the author

Richard Cross is Managing Partner of MCHGlobal and can be contacted at
Richard specialises in strategic organisational change and corporate transformation. A behavioural scientist by background, as director of MCHglobal he has consulted in over 30 countries with corporate and governmental clients in helping them achieve peak performance.
On the editorial board of Inside Knowledge since inception, Richard perspective on the impact of the Knowledge Economy will feature in the forthcoming book 14 Champions of the New Order. Richard’s core interests are in helping organisational adapt to the organic and dynamic business environment of today where intangible dimensions and ‘soft’ variables such as interpretations, intentions, and relationships yield concrete results.

3 Replies to “Social Network Analysis: an introduction”

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  2. Great post but thought you might want to know that it was actually Moreno that originally introduced the sociogram (April 3, 1933) by publishing it in the New York Times. It became a very popular instrument for mapping social connections (mostly political) and of course this publication took place well before Professor J A Barnes coined the phrase “social network”. 🙂

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