How Social Network Analysis Can Help Organisations

How Social Network Analysis Can Help Organisations

by
Sara R Moulton

Is your organisation not communicating and linking up between its different parts? Consider its social network.

The movie, The Social Network chronicles Mark Zuckerberg as he dreams up a website (Facebook) that people use to make online social connections. Zuckerberg leveraged humankind's need for social interaction.

What do our connections say about us and how can they help us at work? Social Network Analysis is a tool used to uncover the patterning of people’s interactions. Applied to organisational life, this can help leaders identify and bridge relational and communication gaps within their organisations.

When describing the importance of social interactions, an analogy commonly used is how seamlessly ants communicate. Ants are purposeful and 'talk' quickly via their antennae, and they work together toward a common goal while focusing on their niche task. Is your organisation like this, or does it feel more like multiple teams engaging in crossed wires or duplicating the same tasks?

The 'real' organisational chart

While organisational charts are an important aspect of depicting a company's structure, many organisations communicate and work through colleagues outside of their reporting line. Here's an example of a traditional organisational chart compared with how the employees actually work. In his article, "Identifying Change Influences Through Social Network Analysis", author Steve Garcia writes: "If an organisational chart provides the theory of how work occurs, the informal social network provides the real-world practice; it illustrates how people work together to solve problems and make decisions in the real world."

By figuring out their 'informal' organisational chart (here’s an example), leaders can determine who the critical employees are, and where bottlenecks or vulnerabilities in their organisations lie. 

They need to both honour the traditional organisational chart while paying attention to the social chart. 

The four roles on the social chart: how are employees placed?

One of the responsibilities of a leader of a team or a leader of leaders is identifying how to leverage an employee's strengths. One way to do this is by identifying the way each employee functions within the informal network, and allowing them to contribute based on their natural strength and style.

After Professor Rob Cross, the Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College spent five years analysing informal networks at more than 50 organisations, he found that there are four roles that employees play when contributing to the productivity of an organisation. They are:

  1. Central connectors who “link most people in an informal network with one another”. While they typically are not the designated go-to person, they spend the most time passing on information and ensuring that colleagues have what they need to accomplish the tasks at hand.
  2. Boundary spanners who “connect an informal network with other parts of the company or with similar networks in other organisations”. Boundary spanners are essential when information and expertise needs to be shared outside of the immediate team.
  3. Information brokers who “connect the various subnetworks in the company”. Information brokers also keep groups connected and without them, the smaller groups within an organisation would not communicate.
  4. Peripheral specialists who “play a vital role in the network by serving as experts”. Although they operate on the periphery, these people have specialised expertise or technical knowledge and are critical to the network.

As a leader, think of your team and the role each member plays or can play. How can you tap on their strengths to ensure a connected organisation where communication flows and common goals are achieved?

Strengthening professional relationships

Finally, regardless of the four roles that a leader or an employee plays, here are three tips that all of us can consider for strengthening our relationships with colleagues:

  1. Network with intention. Author Annie Dillard once said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Be deliberate with how you spend your lunch hour, and who you seek to mentor and be mentored by. Most importantly, balance your deliberate actions with sincerity.
  2. Adopt the five-minute favour. If a favour takes less than five minutes (regardless of who is asking), just do it. Adam Grant, the Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management at Wharton Business School details this practice – shared by venture capitalist Adam Rifkin – in is book, Give and Take.
  3. Dare to be vulnerable. Leaders who are not focusing on ‘saving face’ show their humanity and humility. This invites colleagues to draw closer, and all to be honest with their own strengths and areas where they need help. With less posturing, a work environment where colleagues can be genuine comes about. Surely this can only be good for the beginnings of authentic interactions and relationships?
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