Analysing and evaluating informal social networks
Posted by Dan Steer
ASTD2013 session SU301 is all about informal networks. Many learning professionals have heard that informal networks are extremely influential, also “producing” the vast majority of learning in an organisation.
Yet HR people traditionally put most of their efforts into formal processes, communications, learning or training initiatives and well-defined communities of practice or functional/organisational charts. We like to control and measure things and when we hear about anything informal, we imagine ourselves as potentially helpless.
But in fact, HR and learning professionals can really have impact on organisational performance and development by taking the time to analyse these informal networks and use findings to support succession planning, engagement, knowledge sharing…. Shari Yocum tells us how.
Learning and HR professionals have a lot of tools at their disposition, but key business results still need improvement
Our speaker tells us that despite the myriad of tools available for learning and development (performance reviews, to training, succession planning, coaching and assessments…) many business leaders still don’t see HR as a trusted partner who actually gets things done. They say that HR needs to better focus on the key business areas that create value. As Kevin Cope might say in session W310, they need more business acumen. And according to Shari Yocum, effective analysis of informal business networks will help those same HR people to become strategic partners who lead change, developing leaders and cultivating the organisational culture. Sounds good! Lets go…
Why are we talking about informal networks and social network analysis today?
We are shown a video of Gini Rometty, CEO IBM, who reminds us that we are now in a knowledge era and that it is not processes and conveyors belts that create great results. It is people. We need to “understand the social network not as [our] water-cooler, but as [our] new production line.”
In that culture, the informal networks that exist across the functional and divisional organisation charts found on the intranet have a massive impact on the way things actually happen. They can make or break change initiatives. They can communicate for you. They learn by themselves. A “conversation with Jim” affects me more than anything I might receive from HR or the CEO.
At the moment, according to Yocum, many HR tools help us to understand individual employees and their function, problems and needs. But they don’t get far enough into the network to which the person belongs. Yet that network is massively important.
OK, it sounds good, but what exactly are we talking about here? Let’s define some network terms…
Yocum defines a network as a structure made up of a set of actors (such as employees) and a complex set of ties between them. This network consists of:
- A node, which in human organisational terms would be the employee
- Links that may be weak or strong, direct or indirect, reciprocal or not
- Hubs, which can be considered as a node with a lot of connections going through them
Different parts of the network are considered as more central (relevant or important) than others. This might be based on proximity to others or their position in the network “flow”.
Specific nodes within a network can be seen as:
- Bottlenecks to success, which is considered here as how things flow through the network
- Unsung heroes who do invisible work” that supports the network, but may not be seen in the organisational charts
- Key people on who others depend. If removed from the network, others in the network find themselves without the connection they need.
- Brokers connect 2 or more others who would not otherwise naturally be connected
- Isolated people, that seem un-connected
Networks within themselves can be evaluated in terms of (non-exhaustive list):
- Density, sparsity or clique-y-ness
- Cohesion: Highly cohesive = a high-level of reciprocity
- Structurally unsound, because there are holes in there
- With multiple attributes of varying importance
- ..etc etc…
For more information about the different elements of a network, here are some references:
- Introduction to some basic network analysis terms
- Steve Borgatti’s paper on network analysis and social sciences
- Another academic written piece introducing Social network Analysis
- A resource page with lots of content, links and ideas
What can be done with social/informal network analysis?
According to Shari Yocum, effective network analysis can show many extremely important things in an organisation. Without much analysis skill, you could easily see:
- Who is likely to be dissatisfied due to insufficient network (no-one to go to for answers, blocked from important functional nodes)
- Who has a lot of influence in a network
- Who represents a risk to business success, should leave the organisation (structural hole)
- Where business results are slowed down (bottlenecks)
- Which parts of the organisation are most likely to grow and learn “all by themselves”
- Which departments are thriving and which are slowly dying
- Where and how human resource deficiencies are having an impact on performance
- What might be the impact of relocation or promotion
- Which people could create better results in another part of the organisation
- Which departments or people should be “copy/pasted” into other areas of the business
My own feeling listening to Shari is that this list of applications could go on and on. The concepts of network analysis seem very important to me today. AND I am starting to see a trend today on “seeing the bigger picture” in terms of the organisation and its performance. More on this later…
Thanks for reading.
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