What is Social Network Analysis?

Social Network Analysis (SNA), often called Organisational Network Analysis (ONA) when used in organisations, is an approach to help organisations become more effective. All organisations are social networks so I will continue to use the term SNA.

Most people have heard of SNA but many are unfamiliar with what it is and how it is used. In this article, I provide a short introduction.

SNA is a collection of statistical procedures that enable us to analyse, visualise, and model networks of relationships.

‘Social Networks’ are networks between people. Examples include:

· Marriage networks – how people are connected through the marriage of members of different families

· Networks of people who attended the same school or college – having attended the same school or college is a connection between people even if they did not know one another at the time

· Networks of people who are friends

· Networks of people who regularly phone one another

· Social media networks – people who connect with one another on Linkedin, for example

People are simultaneously members of many networks, and these networks overlap.

Organisational Networks.

Networks in organisations are also social networks as organisations are comprised of people who are connected in many ways.

Connections include the perceptions that people have of one another and the people with whom they interact.

How people perceive others often influences whether or how they will interact with them.

For example:

· Trust Network – people who trust one another (perception). People who trust one another are more likely to interact when they need to do so. People who do not trust someone are likely to interact with them cautiously, perhaps withholding useful information.

· Advice network – people who ask certain others for advice (interaction). One might not ask someone for advice if they do not think the person is knowledgeable or they do not trust them (perception)

· Interdependence network – where people depend on one another for inputs to enable them to do their job. People may have no choice but to interact with someone for job inputs, irrespective of how they perceive them

· Influence network – in certain circumstances, people who believe that certain others are influential in the organisation (perception) will tend to interact with them in various ways to benefit from their influence

· Skills awareness networks – people who think that others are skilful (perception) may ask them for advice (interaction)

etc., etc.

There is no limit to the number of perceptions that people may have of others or of ways of interacting.

Formal (Reporting Relationships)

The connections between people that I have described are ‘informal’ relationships.

We can distinguish informal relationships from the formal reporting relations that employees have with their superiors and peers.

Reading Social Network Diagrams

We can visualise organisational networks using a special kind of chart known formally as a ‘sociogram’, or informally, as a network chart.

Borgatti, S.P., Everett, M.G. and Freeman, L.C. 2002. Ucinet for Windows: Software for Social Network Analysis. Harvard, MA: Analytic Technologies.

Figure 1 is a network diagram showing the Advice-Giving network among members of a two-tier executive group.

Nodes and lines

We use the word ‘nodes’ to describe the people on the chart.

We use the word ‘line’ or ‘tie’ to describe a connection between nodes.

Lines usually have an arrowhead showing the direction of the connection between people.

For example, if Alex gives advice to Luc, there will be a line going from Alex to Luc with an arrowhead showing the direction of the relationship. This is shown in figure 1.

If Gilles gives advice to Ignacio, but Ignacio also gives advice to Gilles, the line will have a double arrowhead showing that the relationship is two-way. This is also shown in figure 1.

The diagram can visualise one perception or interaction, such as trust, or it can show multiple relations that are combined into one line.

Size and colour of the nodes

The size or colour of the nodes represents different network characteristics.

The size or colour of the nodes can be set to represent some attribute, such as whether the person is an SVP or a VP, or their geographic location, or the strength of the relation between them using measures such as frequency of advice-giving, or how much influence in the organisation one person perceives another has. Strength is assessed through a person’s response to a questionnaire that is completed by all people in the network.

Position of the nodes

In figure 1, the position of the nodes indicates how easily people can reach all other people in the network for the purpose of Advice-Giving.

Horace, on the periphery on the left of the sociogram, is several steps removed from Jorge on the extreme right. There will be some reason why the two do not give each advice. It may not be necessary or appropriate for them to do so. However, it may be because other members are preventing the two from communicating for some reason.

Horace would need another group member to broker an Advice-Giving relationship between the two.

It is also apparent that the executive group is divided into two segments. Luc and Christer appear as the ‘go-betweens’ that keep the two segments of the group apart.

People located in the centre of the network are more directly connected than people on the outside of the network are.

This means they can more easily ‘reach’ others without having to pass through various intermediary steps.

People towards the edge of the diagram are least able to reach others without going through other people.

On the left edge of the diagram are several people who are not connected at all. These are known as ‘social isolates’. For some reason, they neither give advice to others nor receive advice from others. The network analyst would want to understand why these people are not integrated into the group, as well as why the group is divided into two segments, separated by Luc and Christer.

Social Structure

Another way of thinking about social networks is as ‘social structure’.

Social networks are social structures since the patterns of connections in the network literally ‘structure’ that is, influence or determine, the interactions among people. A person’s location in a network gives them opportunities to do things or imposes constraints on their activities.

Opportunity and constraint

Network Structure and Opportunities

For example, if employee A, has a direct connection to employee C (perhaps the connection is ‘awareness of skills’), then A knows what C can do, and dependent upon other relations between the two, has the opportunity to draw on C’s skills to solve a problem.

Network Structure and Constraints

Consider the following example of a skills awareness network.

Assume employee X, in Belgium, has a problem that needs specialist skills to solve.

There is an employee in Germany, C, who has the necessary skills but X does not have a direct ‘Skills Awareness’ connection to C. X, therefore, does not know C has the necessary skills and so does not consult them.

The further X is away from C in the network, the less likely it is that they will become aware of the problem and one another’s skills.

The absence of a direct connection is a Network Constraint.

Network constraints are a big problem in organisations.

Organisation members are often completely unaware of how constraints are limiting effectiveness.

They are also often unaware of many of the opportunities to create value from the network.

Brokerage to create value

The position of some people in the network can enable them to connect with other people to generate value.

For example, there may be a manager in France P, who knows C in Germany, and is aware of C’s skills (maybe because they used to work together) and also knows the skills that X possesses in Belgium and that X has a problem to solve.

P could put C in touch with X so between them they can solve the problem.

We call this process Brokerage. Brokerage is the creative bringing together of people who are not directly connected in order to create value.

A person located in a network such that they can easily connect others has a high Brokerage potential.

Social Network Analysts help organisation members to see the constraints and opportunities in the various networks and help them to reduce constraint and maximise opportunity by restructuring the network. This can include repositioning people such that they can function as brokers.

Human and Social Capital

Human Capital

Human Capital refers to the sum total of skills, personality traits, aptitude and experience that organisation members have.

Without these attributes, employees would not perform satisfactorily.

Social Capital.

However, in organisations, people cannot get work done on their own; they need to work with and through others.

Network structures that facilitate the sharing and integration of information are Social Capital.

Value emerges from the sharing and integration of information.

Networks of perceptions and interactions among organisation members affect whom they will interact with, whom they share information with, how well they work together, and help one another to solve problems and generate value.

If an employee is unaware of their colleagues’ skills and experience, they are unlikely to consult them for advice that helps them to create novel approaches or find creative solutions to problems.

A person may have exceptional talents, but these are of little use if their position in a network constrains them from interacting with people who could benefit from their talents.

An organisation’s performance, therefore, depends upon its combination of Human and Social Capital.

What do Network Analysts do?

Experts in SNA analyse networks in organisations to find ways to reduce the constraints imposed by the network and maximise opportunities.

Social network analysts are therefore consultants who improve an organisation’s Social Capital.

Networking activity

The more people get to know each other through frequent interactions in particular parts of the organisation, the less energy they invest in ‘networking’ with people in other parts of the organisation.

There are several reasons for this.

One reason is that employees are so busy interacting with their own colleagues; that they simply do not have the time to network in the wider organisation.

Another reason is that certain people may act as filters, controlling the flow of information and preventing employees from networking outside of their own areas, a practice sometimes known as ‘divide and rule’.

Employees who behave in this way are perhaps trying to protect their own part of the business in order to enhance their own reputation. This is counterproductive.

The effect of this is to slow down the flow of knowledge and resource ultimately limiting the effectiveness of the organisation.

Another common reason is that organisational policies, practices and procedures under the control of senior people either intentionally, or not, stop others from networking outside of their own areas.

We call these network structures ‘Bureaucracies’ or ‘silos’.

Silo businesses commonly give their customers poor service because it takes so much time for information and resource to flow from one part of the organisation to another. Innovation is difficult to achieve in highly siloed organisations.

Networks as a source of competitive advantage

Optimal location in an organisational network gives employees the following advantages:

· Advance notice of important information

· Access to new information

· Control over the flow of information so people can ‘broker’ connections with others

It follows that networks are a potential source of competitive advantage because they enable people to generate value that their competitors are unable to generate, at least not as quickly.

Early access to information from internal or external sources enables the organisation to use the information to generate value (by integrating it with other information) or taking prompt action.

Organisations that are able to quickly channel information or resource flows, therefore, have an advantage over their competitors.

Conversely, the same applies to constraints.

If an organisation (or group within an organisation) is unable to channel information quickly, it will be at a disadvantage if competitors are able to channel information more quickly.

Some example applications of Social Network Analysis

To conclude, here are some examples of how SNA can help an organisation:

· Assess and adjust the level of collaboration between departments to create added value (sharing of best practices etc.)

· Improve how people cooperate and coordinate their activities within and between groups

· Reveal people who are located such that they are able to broker effective relationships with other people who are not directly connected

· Assess the impact of resignations or outplacement and aid in successfully onboarding new hires

· Bottlenecks – SNA can help to identify blockages in information flow

· People who have to maintain many ‘redundant’ connections. There is no point in maintaining connections with too many members of another group. The maintenance of these multiple relations entails a cost in time. It is better to use SNA to identify critical people who give access to group information so that a person can maintain relationships with them

· ‘Key Players’ – people who are so critical their departure would cause the network to fragment into several different subgroups. There is another form of Key Player – people who are very well connected are able to disseminate information widely and quickly. These people are very useful in organisational change initiatives as they can communicate the purpose and benefits of change to stakeholders. Key Players should be protected.

· Identify subgroups that are in conflict with one another – this often happens in matrix organisations when group members report to more than one person thus causing split loyalties.

· Identify what interventions are necessary to integrate merged departments or organisations.

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