by Craig S. Mullins
Imagine facing the prospect of a large-
But is this approach optimal? Perhaps not. What you see on the company’s organizational chart does not really accurately depict how things actually work in your company. There is an underlying social infrastructure that exists in most organizations. It is informal, but functionally powerful. And rarely is it evident just how critical this informal network is until a piece of it is removed.
Consider our downsizing scenario: what would be the impact of laying off a critical component of the informal network? Even if your corporate policy manuals outline standard operating procedures can you be sure that they are being followed? Over time the informal employee network takes over tasks and the work gets done appropriately and on time. But most executives do not understand how this informal network operates in their company. Hence, they do not typically understand how information is flowing, who picks up their requests, and who doesn’t. Clearly, a social network, operating under the radar of the official organization chart, can impact business processes.
“Technically, a social network is the set of social relations that connect people and or groups, such as friendship or advice giving,” says Dr. Kathleen Carley, of the Institute for Software Research Department in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. Dr. Carley is the Director of CASOS, the Center for Computational Analysis of Social and Organizational Systems.
CASOS is a university wide interdisciplinary center that brings together network analysis, computer science and organization science. By combining computational and social network techniques CASOS works to develop a better understanding of the fundamental principles of organizing, coordinating, managing and destabilizing systems of intelligent adaptive agents engaged in real tasks at the team, organizational or social level. In other words, CASOS works to better understand the way things actually work in the real world.
Social Networks and Social Network Analysis
Basically, a social network is a system composed of multiple elements related in some way. Each element in the network may or may not have a relationship with the other elements.
The word “social” is used to define “social networks” because the most common type of element in the network is a person. However, social networks need not be composed entirely of relationships between people, but can be made up of anything that can have a relationship with something else. For example, social networks have been defined for trade patterns in cities and proteins in the human body.
The term social network analysis is used to refer to the set of graph-
Consider, for example, conducting a survey of your organization in which everyone is asked: "Who are the people you are most likely to discuss technical problems with?" and "Who are the people you are most likely to go out with for lunch or after work for a drink?" (perhaps among other questions). The results of these two questions will not likely be the same. But both are useful social network maps.
Social network analysis is the process of collecting data, organizing it in useful ways and examining the network structure to understand its influence on real world events. It is possible to compare the structure of a healthy organization to an unhealthy one, or of a successful startup to an unsuccessful one.
A manager with access to the social network mappings within the organization becomes empowered to view the operations of the company with a clearer perspective and understanding of how things are actually happening. Social network analysis can enable management to identify emergent groups, potential areas of information blockage, and other key actors within the organization who can effect change.
Consider, for example, the employees who are well-
Dr. Carley notes that CASOS has developed a tool, named ORA, to help provide management with information on social networks. When fed the appropriate data, the tool can deliver a management report with the pertinent social network information to the business executive.
An interesting application of social network analysis being conducted by CASOS is the investigative research of e-
Crossing Organizational Boundaries
It is also possible for companies to look at the inter-
A better understanding of inter-
Taking it Further with Meta-
In today’s complex business environment, to address practical problems, we need to move beyond social networks to consider the meta-
A business executive that can move beyond just information on the connections among personnel to consider knowledge and tasks as well opens up avenues for additional understanding. This additional information can help the executive identify hidden competencies and emergent leaders, as well as helping to put together new teams. Moreover, this information provides new guidance and help for the human resources department to do better personnel management and identify points where training could be beneficial. Essentially, it enables more adaptive behaviors to be implemented.
What About Personal Privacy?
Of course, the practice of social network analysis can open up issues of personal privacy and companies will have to balance the gain of such study against its potential pitfalls.
One such pitfall is perception. The informal nature of a social network can seem to become more formal if it is used by management to further its goals. If staff becomes aware that management is analyzing their “social” network to further business goals it may be perceived as an invasion of privacy.
And what about the gurus who, once identified, may become inundated with additional work? Care must be taken to balance the opportunities for leveraging a social network against a potential backlash of disgruntled employees believing they may have been taken advantage of.
A service such as LinkedIn is voluntary. Subscribers choose to use the service and each time an invitation is sent the receiver can choose to accept or decline the invitation. As such, this opt-
Of course, sometimes privacy is less of an issue. When the data is publicly available privacy is not usually a big concern, although some may still have issues with the mining of large volumes of data. When privacy is an issue, names and attributes can be anonymized. As Dr. Carley points out, “sometimes, it is beneficial to look at relationships in terms of roles -
At times, the results of social network analysis can be useful in terms of summary or aggregated statistics. For example, it may be helpful to know how strongly a group is connected or how complex of a task environment they face rather than the details on specific individuals. In general, such summary data is useful for comparing different divisions or branches in the same company.
For the field as a whole, as for many other scientific fields, data-
The Bottom Line
It can be just as, if not more important to understand the informal social fabric of your company than the official organization. The study of social and organizational systems can open up important insight for businesses in terms of how things really get done – and the implications this has on running the business. This field can offer busy executives additional insight into their business and how it functions.
© 2006 Craig S. Mullins,