posted 19 May 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 8
The development of social network analysis
SNA was drawn from the subject of sociology to demonstrate how people work. Patti Anklam examines what's happened since she first wrote about it in Inside Knowledge five years ago.
In May 2003, I published my first article on social network analysis here in IK (then Knowledge Management) magazine. Supported by successive editors, I have contributed a full Social Network Toolkit and a four-part Masterclass series, so I was pleased when I was asked to contribute an article this month on how social network analysis (SNA) has been used in knowledge management (KM) and where it is going.
I am not sure whether this request was prompted by signs of demise, but let me assure you network analysis is becoming an integral part of a mature KM repertoire.
Network analysis in the KM repertoire
Many practitioners (myself included) came by SNA through Rob Cross, first in his work at the Institute of Knowledge Management and now at the Network Roundtable at the University of Virginia. During the past few years, I’ve co-authored case studies with two KM programme leaders who have brought SNA ‘in-house’ and continue to build the capability to conduct analyses.
Adrian (Zeke) Wolfberg has been leading a transformational KM programme at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Beginning with the analysis in 2005 of a cadre of change agents interested in knowledge management, Zeke has adopted organisational network analysis (ONA) and is working with four people to develop their skills so that they can conduct ONA projects. They recently completed a re-survey of the initial group of 140 people, in which they also looked at the relationship between the diversity of a person’s network (see sidebar Personal Network Analysis) and his or her performance. This project confirmed research by Rob Cross and others that a diverse network is directly correlated with higher performance ratings.
A second company whose ONA work I’ve been following is MWH Global. Vic Gulas, in the role of CKO and CIO, began a systematic mapping of the IT organisation in 2003 at the time of a significant re-organisation from a regionally-based set of IT services to a global organisation based on expertise centers. The ONA projects were designed to provide a visual representation of the organisation during the change process, to spark dialogue among managers and to establish a baseline of connectivity against which to measure changes over time.
Vic recently completed the 5th annual mapping of his organisation this spring. The managers of the group now look forward each year to seeing what the network looks like as they continue to focus on strengthening the networks as a key to the performance of the global IT organisation. MWH has four expert ONA practitioners and is training four more, as they are starting to use ONA with their clients.
Barry Dayton leads a very small (two person) KM program office at 3M.
Like many practitioners of ONA, his team’s first project was an ONA of their internal staff. Such projects usually provide good proof points to illustrate the value of ONA. Barry’s second project has been the mapping of expertise in one of 3M’s largest divisions. The technical director of the division’s R&D lab wants to identify the knowledge brokers among the 400 people in labs in 38 different countries.
Barry is using an ONA visualisation tool, NetDraw, to map the 88 identified areas of expertise required for this division and to show how the expertise is spread across job levels and locations. Barry refers to this work as “knowledge network mapping”.
These are only a few of the companies that have expertise in ONA on their KM staffs. I hear of more everyday (see sidebar Daily Alert). For example, I have just heard that Pfizer has added two full-time experts to its KM group. One of these, Nat Bulkley, was a recent recipient of a prestigious award from the International Society for Social Network Analysis (INSNA).
Learning the language of networks
For many people, the allure of ONA is to provide a breakthrough in thinking about a specific knowledge problem. For example, to surface organisational stovepipes, highlight areas needing better collaboration, and mapping pre- and post-organisational change. But those who do ONA projects are learning that ONA is more than a one-time intervention; it starts a mind shift.
Giulio Quaggiotto, programme officer, knowledge strategy, at International Finance Corporation (IFC), was facing the implications of de-centralisation of the institution’s operations. A potential impact on the Environmental and Social Development (CES) department was the possible relocation of a third of the staff at headquarters to field offices worldwide. CES management wanted to be sure that the decentralisation would maintain and possibly enhance the collaboration among CES staff and between CES and other departments. The project included an ONA of the staff as well as the personal network analysis.
This project is not yet complete, but Giulio did cite two key insights from the process, both of which are very common results in the use of ONA:
People in an organisation (particularly newcomers) need to learn networking skills and need help starting their own networks.
Many network analysis projects lead to thinking about orientation programmes for new employees, or ‘onboarding’. Although CES had a good onboarding programme, they realised they didn’t do enough to integrate skills of newcomers into the organisation. Following the ONA they have added a module to their onboarding program in which newcomers develop collages of their past (prior work, expertise, experience) and future (areas of interest and growth). They also indicate the areas in which their skills are underutilised. They present these collages to the management team and HR, who then offer the newcomers’ introductions to senior people who can best help them start to build their networks and be integrated into the organisation.
The network view opens up thinking about how to organise and how to manage.
At CES, the focus was on decentralisation, but as the organisational work progressed, CES ‘morphed’ into a network that looks more like a community of practice. The language is shifting from ‘Which unit do you belong to?’ to ‘What networks are you in?’ I see this shift taking place in organisations around the world, not just in conjunction with ONA projects, but as a vital matter of working in the world in the 21st century. My book, Net Work, talks about this shift and how various tools, including ONA, can help leaders build and sustain successfully networked organisations.
Conducting an ONA can be a major undertaking. Time-consuming factors include the design of the questions to be used in the survey, communications to upper management to ‘sell’ the idea of doing the ONA, working with survey software, and analysing and communicating the results. This is not to mention the time that it takes to develop the skills in-house.
It can also be daunting to find the right set of tools to conduct surveys and perform analyses. There are a plethora of free or relatively low-cost tools available for both, but few tools specifically designed for ONA, This is starting to change, however. For example, colleagues at Optimice have developed survey software specifically to support organisational network analysis and Trampoline Systems recently announced MetaScope, an analysis tool designed specifically for ONA that does both visualisation and metrics.
I’ve spoken with many knowledge managers over the years who were very excited about bringing ONA projects into their companies, but found it a tough slog. Getting buy-in from senior management is not always easy, and the barriers beyond cost and effort include legitimate concerns about privacy and how the data will be used. The consultants I know and work with always place clear boundaries around how the data will be used, who will see it and so on, but in an organisation lacking sufficient trust, it really is a non-starter to try to introduce ONA. So it is, as in so many KM activities and initiatives, that the knowledge leader must have management support and great personal credibility.
These barriers seem to present themselves when the ONA project is seen as a major intervention or initiative. It’s also very common for people to do very short-cycle ONA projects using simple paper-and-pencil questionnaires and bringing the results up in NetDraw, one of the most popular free visualisation tools. Results can be no less interesting than those derived from major projects. As in many things KM, sometimes the stealth approach is the best option. In my workshops, I emphasise the value of simply sketching and mapping networks as a way to generate ideas and insights.
Developing in-house expertise for full ONA capacity requires a commitment to creating the expertise and developing good relationships with management, particularly human resources. In many cases, knowledge managers who absolutely get it that an ONA can provide insight into a particular organisational issue or opportunity will opt to bring in a consultant for a one-time project or intervention. A single project can provide a springboard for action over time.
As the tools for visualising and analysing networks mature, we will see an increasing number of companies which offer network analysis either as their core business or as a complementary consulting service. Many of these focus on the ecosystem in which a company conducts its business. I had an e-mail from Marc Pesse at Executive Insight, which provides technology consulting for pharmaceutical companies. His company is seeing a ‘definite upswing’ in interest from clients who want to map the institutional relationships in the industry and, in particular, to understand the referral networks and influence networks that are vital to business.
While some companies are specialising in specific industries (and building knowledge about those industries), there are also companies that fuse network analysis with business-process consulting, process analysis, and other business analytics that have horizontal appeal. ‘Business network mapping’ is what Graham Durant-Law calls his method. Another company, Encompass Knowledge Systems, provides a suite of business analytics that provides an organisational ‘CAT scan’. While not specifically knowledge management or ONA tools, these services bring a new dimension to how we look at enterprise knowledge.
Social tools: the breakthrough
I cannot conclude this article without reference to one of the larger themes that emerged as I talked to people while preparing this article: the impact that the explosion of methods, tools and understanding of social theory is having on all the tools that we use in knowledge management. For example, expertise location has long been one of the holy grails of KM: how to help people find the right person with the right knowledge at the right time? In the past, it was all about content: we ‘found’ experts based on their fingerprints on documents and in files.
The missing piece, as Kate Ehrlich has found in her research at IBM’s Watson Research Center, is that social context matters: when I look for an expert in a topic, then I also want to know how I am connected to that person – how many degrees away? Tools for finding and connecting with experts are now enhancing the results by showing what the relationships are between people as well as the common connections.
Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis, Flickr, Twitter, del.icio.us and so on) and social networking sites (such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Myspace) have changed the face of how we participate and interact in the world. “Web 2.0,” said John Seely Brown, is “a profoundly participatory medium” and because of that we are profoundly connected through our friends and our tags. And we are aware of it. Most KM leaders are already supporting and piloting the use of these tools inside their companies. The use of these technologies will engender new attitudes towards mapping social networks and will also – here’s the rub – provide a very rich source of data for creating social graphs that show how people are connected. These high-level graphs of an enterprise’s knowledge and the ways it is being combined and re-combined is the dashboard of a KM manager’s dream.
Previous publications by Patti Anklam for Ark Group include, ‘Masterclass: Social-network Analysis,’ four-part series in Inside Knowledge, June 2005-October 2005; ‘KM and the Social Network,’ Knowledge Management magazine, May 2003; and ‘The Social Network Toolkit: Building Organisational Performance through Collaborative Communities’, Ark Group report, 2005.
Box: Personal network analysis
Among the many contributions by Rob Cross to the discipline of ONA is the process of having individuals do a personal network analysis. In a survey, participants are asked to list the names of people whom they go to for advice, to brainstorm new ideas, to collaborate with, to get expertise, etcetera. They then indicate for each of these people whether he or she is in the same group, above or below in the hierarchy, in the same geographic region, the time known, and so on. The composite profile can indicate the diversity of an individual’s network and lead to understanding whether one is able to work effectively across boundaries.
Box: Daily alert
I receive daily alerts from Google on items that have ‘social network analysis’ or ‘organisational network analysis’ in the text. The day I sat down to (finally) write this article, I followed a link that had these words: “In our work with clients we often start projects with a social network analysis. This dandy piece of software spits out network maps that provide us an x-ray into how information flows through an organisation. We can clearly see the people within organisations that are sought out the most often.” I followed the link to the web site of a company, Orbital RPM, that provides learning solutions for its clients. I get such alerts daily. It’s happening. Everywhere.
Box: What is SNA?
Social network analysis is the examination of the relationships among people in a defined group network. The network map (often called the social graph) shows individuals as ‘nodes’ and the relationships between them as ‘ties’ or links. A link can represent a specific dimension of a relationship. For example, whether a person goes to another person for advice, to share an idea, or to get information needed to do their job. The information is normally collected via surveys or interviews and the results displayed visually. Patterns that show how well groups are connected are quickly identified. Mathematical analysis of the links reveals more precisely the roles of individuals in the network, including the hubs, knowledge brokers, influencers, connectors and peripheral people.
The goal of an SNA is to obtain a snapshot in time of a network. A successful SNA project results in really good questions that lead to dialogue and action.
To emphasise the focus of the analysis on organisations, many practitioners (including myself) have adopted the term ‘organisational network analysis’ (ONA) in lieu of SNA.
Patti Anklam is a consultant in organisational network development, collaboration methods and tools, communities of practice and knowledge management. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.