Social Network Analysis in practice

In Social Network Analysis: an introduction, Richard Cross, Guest Author, explains the importance of making organisations hidden social networks visible. In this follow-up article Richard discusses how Social Network Analysis (SNA) actually works in practice.

Social Network Analysis in Practice

Often rebranded as Organisation Network Analysis (presumably easier to sell that way) SNA has been applied in a number of settings from law firms to drug companies, consultancies, financial services companies through to government agencies.
Pharmaceutical companies, for example are using it to help identify key scientists and discover how they are collaborating across organisation boundaries; government agencies on the other hand are using the technique to pinpoint top performers who may be close to retirement in order to devise methods to transfer that knowledge before it walks away for good.

Assessing energy in networks is illuminating

Cross and Parker have explored extensively the territory of how energy affects network performance and learning as well as best practices to initiate, develop and maintain networks. For more details see their book ‘The Hidden Power of Social Networks – understanding how work really gets done in organisations’.
They demonstrate how it is possible to identify attractors in an organisation and determine which projects have the best likelihood of success through association with such stars.
By the same token they can also highlight those energy sappers, for whom a problem shared is a problem doubled. Such people can act as sponges in de-energising others.
In this respect network analysis complemented with structured interviews has been successfully used to provide people with feedback on the effect of their interactions on colleagues and correct de-energising behaviour and unproductive network patterns.
One should be cautious of assuming that more connections are better and assuming serial networking is a route to organisation salvation. A productivity drain frequently encountered is excessive connectivity.
Cross and Parker highlight the example of a software company where, although it was the most connected group, no work could be done because of the volume of meetings, calls, e-mails and instant messages.
In this case the focus of improvement planning was on how to clarify relationships and accountabilities rather than stultify the organisation through momentum-destroying consensus. In general rather than pursuing numbers ‘better connections are better’.

Practical Considerations

As Archimedes said, “give me but one firm spot on which to stand and a lever, and I will move the earth”.
A good start point is consideration of groups in which effective collaboration yields strategic and operational benefits to an organisation.
An associated tip is to look for fragmentation points in a network – where groups cross functional, hierarchical and physical boundaries.
The second consideration is the size of the group. The maximum size is generally recommended to be restricted to about 250. Large networks are assessed by focussing on sub-groups in which collaboration are critical.
Although it can be administered via software that tracks e-mails, the survey approach has more advantages for most organisational applications. Data for an SNA is typically collected by surveying an identified group, asking them to answer questions about the relationship with every other person in the group. The surveys typically take a respondent only 20-30 minutes to complete.
Given there are an array of areas to explore in a network the vital few that consistently provide opportunity for improvement are information you need to do your work, awareness of someone’s knowledge and skills, and the people you would like to communicate with more.
The data from these surveys is used to generate diagrams that make the individuals and the connections between them visible.
Like an X-Ray into the black hole that lurks beneath the formal organisation chart they highlight the patterns and flow or flood of knowledge and relationships in the following ways:

    • Bottlenecks – central nodes that provide the only connection between different groups
    • Brokers – those with good connections – who know someone who knows
    • The disconnected – peripheral players – whose skills are underutilised
    • Under (or over) utilised experts
    • Silo’s where knowledge sticks
    • Average distance – degrees of separation connecting all pairs of nodes in the group with short distances

transmitting information rapidly and long distance ones representing potential for distortion and’ Chinese whispers’

  • Cliques with their own distinctive and frequently subversive sub-cultures

How to interpret and deal with the wealth of data from an SNA is a further article in its own right. In the early stages outside assistance is invaluable. Networks are intensely personal and companies may come up against a backlash from employees who object to having their networks mapped.
An external perspective can provide rigour, and add objectivity as well as guide follow-up. A key point is to provide the forums, time and environment to take a step back and develop individual and organisation action plans that deliver both personal and business benefits.

SNA is here to stay

Social Network or Organisation Network Analysis is poised to become a powerful technique to deliver tangible organisational, personal (See Table 2 for a Self-help example) and economic (as in Table 3 which summarises research on entrepreneurial success in Africa) performance.
Rather than a short term fad it has significant potential to be central to effective organisation performance in the Knowledge age. Organisations and individuals ignore the potential at the risk of becoming peripheral players.

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.