posted 26 Oct 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 2
Case study – The British Council
The British Council deployed social network analysis to help managers understand how knowledge is shared in the organisation – and what they could do to make knowledge sharing more effective.
By Bonnie Cheuk
The main purpose of the British Council is to build mutually beneficial relationships between people in the UK and other countries, to promote the English language and to increase appreciation of the UK’s creative ideas and achievements. Its remit is broadly analogous to that of Alliance Française in France, the Goethe-Institut in Germany and the Confucius Institute in China.
But with offices in more than 110 countries and 7,000 staff working towards the same goals but in a diverse range of cultures, there is a clear need for knowledge sharing, which certainly is not easy to introduce among such a widely dispersed workforce.
The British Council is therefore no stranger to knowledge management (KM). Its KM programme was officially launched in December 2002 with the appointment of a KM director. A year later, its KM strategy was approved and unveiled following an in-depth knowledge audit.
The British Council’s KM vision is to enable the organisation to develop and deliver products and services to clients by facilitating the effective sharing and utilisation of collective knowledge including, especially, easy access to relevant documents and resources.
In the past two years, the British Council’s KM activities have accelerated with the launch of a number of KM projects and increasing awareness and support from senior management. Specific projects that are now being embedded in the organisation include:
- A knowledge audit conducted using Dr Brenda Dervin’s sense-making methodology [REF 1];
- Development of KM strategies for individual business units;
- Building communities of practice using my own ‘Seven-Phase Methodology’ [REF 2];
- Enhancement of the intranet, collaboration tools and global databases;
- Applying social network analysis (SNA) to support collaborative working (Anklam, 2003; Cross & Parker, 2004) [REF 3];
- Applying narrative techniques to conduct project debriefs.
In 2005, KM was widely recognised as an enabler to deliver the British Council’s overall business strategy. More than 100 ‘knowledge champions’ worldwide have been recruited, attending training on KM to provide them with the tools and more than 70 global communities of practice (CoPs) have been established [REF 4].
During 2004 and 2005, the overseas operations of the British Council were significantly re-structured. Thirteen regions were introduced to replace the existing country operations, which had been managed as individual entities. Each new region is made up of a number of existing country operations.
Thirteen regional directors were also appointed. They have to work closely with the 17 senior management team members based in the UK to set the strategic direction for the organisation. This 30-person team is referred to as the ‘global leadership team’.
The restructuring provided an excellent opportunity to promote knowledge sharing beyond country operations, as well as between overseas operations and the UK headquarters. However, it has also presented a challenge. Any organisational re-structure leads to the creation of new teams, which can be to the detriment of any existing knowledge-sharing culture. This presents a challenge to the knowledge-management team.
Before the formal establishment of the British Council’s KM strategy in 2003, the organisation took a traditional view of knowledge, defining it as information and documents that can be managed as objects. Knowledge management was regarded as little more than the sharing of documents and information on the intranet or via global databases.
The British Council, post-2003, employed Dr Brenda Dervin’s sense-making theory to provide the organisation with an alternative perspective in knowledge sharing.
After 2003, knowledge was no longer regarded as a product that can simply be transferred from one colleague to another, but as a two-way communication practice. In addition to connecting employees to ‘information’ using KM systems, we began to focus on trying to facilitate genuine dialogue between staff. Instead of asking the question, ‘what information should we manage?’ we began to ask the question, ‘who should be linked up?’
During this phase of implementation, we focused on providing space for dialogue by building global CoPs and virtual teams. We appointed facilitators to manage these communities and supported them with web-based collaboration tools. Social-network analysis was also deployed as a diagnostic tool to support team building, as well as to evaluate the performance of the communities.
Social network analysis is a set of methods for analysing social structures and the people-relationships therein. SNA can be used to address various organisational issues, including:
- Supporting partnership and alliances;
- Assessing strategy execution;
- Improving strategic decision making in top leaderships networks;
- Integrating networks across core processes;
- Ensuring integration following a merger or major change-management initiative;
- Developing communities of practice;
- Personal networks and leadership development.
The importance of social networks has been highlighted by a number of researchers, such as Rob Cross, who found that despite easy access to a world class knowledge management system, 85 per cent of managers still got most of the information that they felt had an impact on the success of a project from their personal network.
The British Council therefore introduced SNA as a key diagnostic tool to improve internal strategic decision-making in its newly-formed global leadership team.
We started with the 13 newly-appointed regional directors in charge of setting the strategic direction of the British Council and the delivery of products and services overseas. They are geographically dispersed, but they have to work closely with the 17 senior management team members in the UK headquarters. Complicating matters for them, the global leadership team meets only twice a year.
The KM team wanted to help them understand what knowledge sharing across countries and regions in the British Council is really like – and what needs to be implemented to make knowledge transfer effective.
We wanted to give them some practical experience before they went on to introduce new knowledge sharing initiatives to the teams within their respective regions. A series of activities were developed to promote knowledge sharing among the 13 global leaders, as well as between them and the 17 senior-management team members in the UK. These included:
- An initial community-building meeting to help them to get to know one another;
- An audit exercise to find out what knowledge, resources, expertise and help they need to get work done;
- The establishment of a web-based collaboration site;
- The appointment of a community facilitator;
- The establishment of an events calendar;
- Carrying out an SNA exercise to identify opportunities and gaps.
The KM team conducted a SNA exercise for the 30 global leaders as part of a global leadership-development event. The aim was to help the team to visualise their existing relationships and to enable them to reflect on how they actually network with one another.
There were three steps to this exercise:
Step one: A data-collection template was developed and circulated to the 13 regional directors and the 17 senior management team members in the UK. They were asked to complete the form prior to the event (Appendix 1);
Step two: The findings were analysed and presented to the group during the 60-minute KM session;
Step three: The participants were given the opportunity to discuss the findings and come up with interventions to focus on during the next three months.
The KM team stressed that SNA is a diagnostic tool to generate discussion. It is not meant to evaluate the performance of the group or of individual members.
A step-by-step guide to the process is presented below.
Step one: Data collection
The template (see figure one) was circulated to the 13 leaders (and the 17 senior management team members in the UK) before and during the event. The template was designed to be simple and self-explanatory. Only two questions were asked in this case :
Question one: To whom do you send information to and receive information from (that would include documents, plans and other resources)?
Question two: With whom do you have informal discussions about your work and/or new ideas?
Step two: Data analysis and visualisation
Only 23 colleagues out of 30 global leaders completed the data collection template. The KM team used UCINET software to visualise the data using so-called SNA maps.
During the event, the global leaders were given an introduction to the technique and then presented with the findings of the analysis in an anonymised form of SNA maps. Each map demonstrated the frequency of colleagues’ contact with one another for formal information exchange. The nodes representing colleagues based in the UK were different colours (see figure two).
Step three: Discussion
The leaders were invited to discuss the following questions:
- What patterns do you see?
- Where do you think you sit in the SNA map?
- What do you see as the key strength of this network?
- What do you see as the potential weakness of this network?
To respect privacy, we initially showed the maps without any names attached. But to our surprise, all the participants asked for the results to be disclosed during the event. This made it more interesting for all concerned.
The participants were given time to reflect on their questions again and then asked to discuss these two questions:
- As a group, what needs to be changed in three months’ time in order to achieve the global leadership team’s objectives?
- As an individual, what would you like to change in three months’ time?
What did the group learn?
The newly-appointed global leaders agreed that the SNA map represented a reasonably accurate reflection of the situation at that time, given that the majority of those leaders were new in their posts. In addition, they highlighted the following issues regarding knowledge flow:
- There were, perhaps predictably, strong relationships between UK-based staff;
- There was relatively little contact between the UK and overseas;
- Only a few overseas leaders were even talking to one another;
- There was little difference in terms of formal and informal networking patterns.
They also reflected the strengths and weaknesses of individuals’ social networks. The main strength was that the monthly SNA map clearly showed the volume of communication that was already taking place. However, this map also highlighted many weaknesses, such as:
- The preponderance of ‘nodes’ in the headquarters. This might hinder widespread communication of messages;
- The need for more networking between the global leaders;
- The need to set clear, defined tasks to ensure that broad communication takes place.
As a result of the ensuring discussion, we identified some actions that we could take to improve networking:
- Several leaders agreed to form a ‘mini-group’ to work on knowledge-sharing issues together;
- A monthly web meeting was arranged to enable the group to discuss such issues;
- The nurturing of existing sub-groups and informal groups. For example, several regional leaders were already discussing issues informally with one another and they wanted to make an effort to keep that going.
Starting with the global leaders was a useful exercise. First, the global leaders themselves identified a number of interventions that they could personal take to improve networking among themselves. On top of their busy daily schedule, they now make a very conscious effort to ‘touch base’ with one another through online knowledge-sharing sessions.
Over time, they have built up a better understanding of one another and now share more freely the challenges they face and how they overcome them in their region. Improved networking among the global leadership team members has also led to unexpected outcomes, whereby knowledge exchange is not limited to topics on the set agenda, but takes place on a more informal basis covering a range of other topics.
In summary, through improved social networking, the global leaders have led by example and contributed to improve knowledge sharing in a number of ways:
- It has increased the number of documents shared on the collaborative website (as a result of the need to exchange documents to prepare for or as a follow up to a networking event);
- The global leaders share important projects they are implementing in their regions and who the employees are leading on them. This information is in turn shared by the regional director with their regional team, and has resulted in increasing networking between managers in different regions;
- It has opened up the eyes of global leaders of the power of social networking, especially through good facilitation. Many regional directors have expressed an interest in conducting a similar social networking exercise with their own regional management teams.
A number of participants pointed out the limitations of the social-networking map. These shortcomings included the following points:
- A successful SNA map requires a 100 per cent response rate – all participants must fill in the data collection sheets. This is difficult to achieve. At the British Council, we achieved this by distributing the form at a compulsory event. However, only 23 out of 30 global leadership team members completed the data collection template;
- There were many nodes on the network (especially in the UK). This can lead to the false conclusion that the more nodes, the stronger the network;
- A number of leaders mentioned that the SNA map only reported the situation at that time. The maps should be used with care as they can only provide a snapshot at any one point in time. The group thought it would be useful to go through the same exercise again at a later date to see the shifts in type and strength of relationship.
The final limitation cited in this social networking exercise is that only 23 people participated. When applied to a larger number of staff (more than 1000), the resulting SNA map will be bewilderingly complex and the discussion as to what a person can do as an ‘individual’ to change and improve networking will be more difficult. Additional applied research has to be done to understand the value of SNA to the business in such cases.
This paper presents an example of how the British Council has used the theory of social network analysis as a practical tool to support our knowledge management programme. It proves that SNA exercises are simple to carry out and the results can provide a focal point for discussion in improving knowledge flow.
The global leaders who attended the session agreed that it was worth completing the exercise, and that the SNA maps provided them with alternative perspectives on their own knowledge flow and networking habits. They begin to recognise the need to balance the sharing of knowledge through documents against people-to-people networking. It helps them to improve understanding that Knowledge Management as a subject encompasses more than document exchange. They recommended that SNA exercises be adopted for supporting team building at a regional level.
Bonnie Cheuk… She can be contacted by e-mailing email@example.com.
1. Dervin, B. (1992) ‘From The Mind’s Eye of the User: The Sense-Making qualitative quantitative methodology’. In J. D. Glazier & R. R. Powell (Eds.), Qualitative Research in Information Management: 61-84. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
2. Cheuk, Bonnie (2004). ‘A Seven Stage Guide to Community Implementation’. In Simon Lelic (Ed). Communities of Practice: Lessons from Collaborative Leading Enterprises: 83-91. London: Ark Group Limited.
3. Anklam, Patti (2003). ‘KM and the Social Network’. Knowledge Management Magazine, May 2003.
4. One community of practice qualified as a finalist in the KM category of the Information Management 2004 Award. Another community of practice received a commendation in the KM category in the Information Management Awards 2005.
Cheuk, Bonnie (2004). ‘Applying Sense-Making Methodology to Establish Communities of Practice: Examples from the British Council’. In Bruno et al (Ed.). People, Knowledge and Technology: What have we learnt so far?: pp55-65.
Cheuk, W-Y, B., & Dervin, B. (1999). ‘A Qualitative Sense-Making Study of the Information Seeking Situations faced by Professionals in Three Workplace Contexts’. The Electronic Journal of Communication [On-line serial] 9 (2, 3, & 4).
Cross, Rob. http://www.robcross.org/sna.htm
Cross, Rob & Parker, Andrew (2004). ‘The Hidden Power of Social Networks’. Harvard Business School Press, 2004.
Cross, Rob, Parker, Andrew, Prusak, Laurence and Borgatti, Stephen P. Knowing ‘What We Know: Supporting Knowledge Creation and Sharing in Social Networks’. Organizational Dynamics 30, no. 2 (2001): 100 - 120.
Dervin, B. (1992) ‘From the Mind’s Eye of the User: The Sense-Making Qualitative Quantitative Methodology’. In J. D. Glazier & R. R. Powell (Eds.), Qualitative Research in Information Management: 61-84. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.
Hildreth, Paul M. & Kimble, Chris (2002). ‘The Duality of Knowledge’. Information Research, Vol. 8 No. 1, October 2002. http://informationr.net/ir/8-1/paper142.html
Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The Knowledge-Creating Company. New York/Oxford University Press.
Schutz, Alfred. (1967) The Phenomenology of the Social World. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Scott, J. (1992), Social Network Analysis. Newbury Park CA: Sage.
Snowden, David (2002). ‘Complex Acts of Knowing: Paradox and Descriptive Self-Awareness’. Journal of Knowledge Management 6(2), 2002, pp100-111.
Sutton, D. C. (2001). ‘What is Knowledge and can it be Managed?’ European Journal of Information Systems, 10(2), 80-88.
Wilson, Tom. (2002) ‘The Nonsense of Knowledge Management’. Information Research, Vol. 8 No. 1, October 2002. http://informationr.net/ir/8-1/paper144.html#sch67