Social Network Analysis: making invisible work visible.

Social NetworkEveryone is talking about the enormous benefits to be had through collaborative working and better employee engagement. Industry analysts report a 25% improvement in organisational efficiency when companies successfully deploy a collaboration platform. Whether it’s social media or social collaboration, organisations are striving to deliver better value through a more connected workforce and closer engagement with customers and stakeholders. The term ‘social business’ nicely sums up this important development. The paradox is that organisations continue to allocate a significant proportion of their IT budgets on communications infrastructure and ‘social software’ and virtually nothing on systems and tools that can analyse how effective this investment is.

While companies know that social networks are important, most managers don’t understand how these networks really work. These social networks don’t appear on any formal organisation charts, yet can significantly affect performance and innovation. The problems is, how can leaders manage what they can’t see?

Managers may implement collaborative technologies with the vague notion that they will help employees interact more seamlessly and that this will improve the quality of their work. They may plan culture change programmes or apply KM techniques to create “learning organisations” in the hope that promoting open and honest conversations will lead to innovation and performance improvements. Or they may establish communities of practice with the intent of promoting knowledge creation and sharing as well as improving the quality and efficiency of work.

Sometimes these initiatives have the desired effect, but the results are not always positive. Organisations can get bogged down. Decision makers can become so consumed that most of their employees cannot get to them in time to seize opportunities. And individual employees get overloaded with email, meetings and requests for help, to a point where their own work, job satisfaction, and even health are affected.

It seems odd that we’ve accepted this state of affairs for so long, perhaps partially driven by the hype around enterprise collaboration systems that will instantly unlock the previously suppressed creative forces within the organisation. Managers need to take a more targeted approach, based on information about how work is really done within their organisation. The power of a network perspective, whether applied to a group or an individual, lies with the precision this view offers. Managers who target strategic points in social networks can quickly increase an organisation’s effectiveness, efficiency and opportunities for innovation. In networks of any size it is not possible for everyone to be connected to everyone else, nor is it desirable. An indiscriminate increase in connections can be a drag on productivity. A crucial benefit of network analysis often comes from discovering excessive relationships. The discovery can help managers develop ways to alleviate over-burdened people and decrease time-consuming connections.

What else can network analysis reveal? The detail is in the attached paper, but the following is a brief summary of what a well-informed manager could glean from a network analysis approach:

  • Bottlenecks – individuals or groups that provide the only connection between different parts of the network.
  • Number of links – insufficient or excessive links between departments that should coordinate effectively.
  • Degrees of separation connecting all pairs of nodes in the group. Short distances transmit information accurately and in a timely way, while long distances transmit slowly and can distort the information. This can also show the number of nodes that an individual would have to go through to get an answer.
  • Isolation – people that are not integrated well into a group and therefore, represent both untapped skills and a high likelihood of turnover.
  • Highly expert people – that may not be utilised effectively.
  • Individuals whose potential departure might result in the loss of unique knowledge to the organisation.
  • Organisational subgroups or cliques – can develop their own subcultures and negative attitudes toward other groups.
  • Emergent leaders and informal experts.
  • Linking patterns amongst blogs.
  • Emergent communities.
  • Tracking growth of on-line communities.
  • Staff movements and location (e.g. for optimising office use). ‘What if’ analysis can be performed to predict the outcome of your organisational and social change initiatives.

Find out how Social Network Analysis (SNA) can make the ‘invisible work, visible’ (see attached PDF). Having a better understanding of how your networks work is the first step in achieving more effective collaboration and improving workplace efficiency.

I’ve become convinced that how networks work has become an essential 21st Century literacy. Harold Rheingold.

Image courtesy of higyou (Shutterstock)

Social Network Analysis Proposition

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The Sunday Times Social List

SundayTimes Social List

I’m still undecided about these services and applications that purport to measure your social influence (or social equity), mainly because there is very little transparency of the algorithms they use to determine where you rank amongst the “crowd” (understandable I guess, to avoid people manipulating their score), but do I really want to add to my stress levels if I suddenly see my ranking going through the floor?

However, I will admit to dabbling with this stuff, mainly to try and discover whether there is something useful to be learned, or some benefit to be gained. I could imagine that if I was amongst the top ten in the social list I might get some interesting offers from various marketing departments to push their products – but do I want to do that with social media? NO! But I can see this might be a driver for some people.

I subscribed to Klout some time ago, and though I try not to get too obsessive about by my score I’m intrigued to find out what it may actually mean and what activities have an influence on it. For example, can quality of content be assessed and weighted above quantity? I’m not one of the people who like to Tweet about what they’ve had for breakfast, or what they’re thinking now. The algorithms are supposedly based on engagement and reach, which may partly resolve the quality issue (assuming that someone who tweets about their breakfast is not going to get re-tweeted to any significant degree).

Anyway, I felt compelled to try out the recently launched The Sunday Times Social List a “definitive and ever evolving list of who’s who in the world of social networking” according to the blurb. I know I’ll never get onto the Sunday Times Rich List, so maybe this is the next best thing – to be socially rich is not without some merit.

Drawing information from the four biggest social networks – Foursquare, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook – The Sunday Times Social List system adds up your social networking activity and measures how much interest it generates amongst your friends and colleagues in order to work out how well you score.

Free to join, participants simply need to link up whichever social networks they use and want to be included. Every morning The Sunday Times Social List will make its calculations.

To help people see where they are in the grand scheme of things, they are allocated a rank when they join and a badge that goes with it. This could change from ‘Fledgling’ through to the top spot, ‘Titan’, over time, depending on how well they are doing.

If anyone has any views on these services – good or bad – I’d be interested to hear from you. As I said, I’m still trying to work out whether social equity does have a value, and if so how should it be used for the greater good.

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Discovering the value of Social Networks and Communities of Practice

There has been much written about measuring the value of online communities such as Social Networks or Communities of Practice.  However, most pundits tend to think of measuring value from a purely financial perspective, i.e. the Return on Investment (ROI).  Clearly this is an important factor, but it’s not the only factor that should be considered. Surprisingly few organisations consider the value that is being created by having better informed and more knowledgeable staff, or the potential value of getting closer to customers and local communities. These latter factors are quite difficult to measure in terms of ROI, and will normally take more than one business cycle (e.g. a financial year) before any meaningful financial measures can be made. Unfortunately – and especially in today’s financial climate – organisations plan around 1 or 2 year business years, whereas online communities will not usually be time-limited, and very rarely be driven by finance and budgets. Allowing for the relatively small cost of bandwidth and technology, conversations are – for the most part – deemed to be free.

I was pleased to see that Matt Rhodes over at Freshnetworks did refer to non-financial ROI, though I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the value that is generated for the members of these online communities, rather than the usual social media impact measures (numbers of page hits, numbers of conversations etc.) – important as these are, and adequately illustrated in the accompanying presentation.

I have taken a slightly different approach to the issue of how the value of online communities is measured, giving more emphasis to the discovery of value rather than the dispassionate assembly of a series of metrics – financial or otherwise. I should also add that the perspective is on public sector communities since this is where I’ve been primarily engaged over the past few years. The main points are covered in a presentation I gave to the Public Health Information Network Conference earlier this year and reproduced below:

1. We need to distinguish between cost and value.

I used the humble nutmeg to illustrate this point. Weight for weight more valuable than gold in 17th century Europe. The spice was held to have powerful medicinal properties. It rocketed in price when physicians in Elizabethan London claimed that their nutmeg pomanders were the only certain cure for the plague. So, cost was very high, but the value? Well, despite the assertions of the medical experts of the day, it certainly didn’t cure the plague!

The point is reinforced by the following quotations:

I conceive that the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things.
Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790.

A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Oscar Wilde 1854 – 1900.

2.  We are more likely to find and create value from the communities we choose for ourselves than the communities we are compelled to join.

I have argued that one of the key characteristics of a Community of Practice is the fact that the members are self-selected, i.e. they are there because they want to be there and not because they have to be there. They may select to become members because they share the same interests, passions and goals as the other members. A successful CoP will create value for the members – either collectively in terms of working towards a common goal or objective, or personally, e.g. through self-development or sharing knowledge.

3. We are re-discovering networks and communities and through them, re-learning how to have conversations.

It’s sad fact that 20th century working practices and pressures of modern life have led to a sense of personal isolation. Mass production, prescriptive and repetitive tasks and limited social opportunities in the workplace have created a workforce conditioned to think and act as a corporate entity, limiting individual aspirations and creative thought.  The opportunities for sharing information and knowledge have been gradually eroded over the past 50 years; social clubs have closed; people don’t have the time (or money) to regularly socialise after work; we are increasingly driven by task-oriented emails.

What is sometimes forgotten is that professional communities, where good and notable practice is shared amongst fellow artisans, are still flourishing today in the form of Worshipful Companies (over 800 in London alone), with most having existed for many hundreds of years. Communities of Practice are not new; they’ve just discovered they can exist in a virtual world. The key issue for many people though, is learning how to have on-line conversations.  The following points from one of the slides are worth re-iterating:

  • We don’t know what we don’t know
  • People don’t learn from content – they learn from other people.
  • We don’t know the value of knowledge until it is shared
  • We need to find where the conversations are happening….and join in!


Dialogue is NOT:

  • Discussion, deliberation, negotiation
  • Committee, team, task or working group
  • Majority wins, minority dominance, groupthink

Dialogue IS:

  • Free-flowing exchange of ideas among equals
  • All ideas are solicited and are considered
  • Best ideas rise to the top

4. ROI doesn’t just mean ‘Return on Investment’

I’ve taken the liberty of using something I once heard Euan Semple say: “Keep the I small and the R will look after itself”. I think this is a good mantra because anyone worth their salt in the Social Media/Social Web world knows that implementing a social media strategy doesn’t have to cost a fortune. The days of multi-million pound corporate websites is fast diminishing, and anyone with this amount of money to spend is going to be quite rightly questioned on ROI – and they better make sure they have the answers.

I’ve given some alternative definitions for ROI, such as:

  • Return on Influence
  • Return on Interaction
  • Return on Impact

These are the things which should be measured for value, and add a different dimension to the traditional financial measures.

5. Recognise that value to the organisation is different from value to the individual.

There is an over-emphasis on measuring value of online communities from the organisational perspective. I’ve given a (financial) example in the slides, using cost savings of online conferences as an example.  However, it is important to remember that there is also a value to the individual in being a member of an online community, and this aspect often goes unrecognised (and unmeasured). The value or benefit to a community member is quite difficult to measure (the member may not be able to articulate or recognise what knowledge they have gained from the community) and any outcomes may not be easily aligned with corporate goals (e.g. job satisfaction). It is nevertheless important to consider this dimension in any overall value measurement. Qualitative metrics can provide some answers, but it’s also useful to examine quantitative data to gain a better understanding of the community itself, e.g.:

  • Number of community members
  • Number of contributions
  • Number of contributors
  • Number of inactive users

Having a Social Network Analysis (SNA) application is even better, since this can reveal who the key ‘nodes’ are in the community chatter. It’s a useful discipline to consider what would happen to the online community if these community members decided to leave the community. Dependency on one or two ‘power’ contributors should be recognised as a risk.

The presentation concludes with a number of lessons learnt from the IDeA CoP platform , which has now been active (and by all measures, successful) for over 3 years. It’s always useful to have a distilled list of “do’s” and “don’ts”, herewith reproduced:


  • ..identify and look after your facilitators – they are quite often the difference between successful and unsuccessful communities
  • ..let users drive their own experimentation and use of tools.
  • and support areas that have a clear desire and need.
  • trust and relationships face to face where possible.
  • ..condition your managers for failure – not every CoP is going to be successful.
  • ..use online conferences and ‘Hot Seats’ to build membership growth and encourage conversations.


  • ..think you can force people to collaborate
  • ..assume everyone understands how to use  Web2.0/social media tools.
  • ..assume everyone knows how to contribute.
  • ..worry about the ‘lurkers’.
  • ..let command, control or hierarchy hamper or kill your community
  • ..set unrealistic targets

I hope this has been helpful to anyone involved with social networks or communities of practice, and particularly those who need to show that their online communities are delivering value. Just remember there is more to ROI than finance!

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Generation V and four levels of virtual engagement

I’m not really into this relentless trend to categorise people and their behaviours into socio-economic-demographic groups since very rarely does anyone neatly fit within one of these categories. However, I follow the trend if for no other reason I can speak the same language as my peers. So, having got to grips with the various attributes and behaviours symbolised as ‘Generation X‘ and ‘Generation Y‘ , it seems we need to recognise another category – ‘Generation V’. (Since we seem to be going through the alphabet in reverse order, I can only assume I’ve somehow missed who ‘Generation W’ is or was!)

A recent Gartner report categorises ‘ Generation Virtual’ (Generation V) as a new online group that is not defined by age, gender, social class or geography. Instead, it is based on achievement, accomplishments and an increasing preference for the use of digital media channels to discover information, build knowledge and share insights.

Within the Generation V community, Gartner defines four levels of engagement – creators, contributors, opportunists, and lurkers – related to the extent to which customers engage with other customers and the level of engagement that businesses and other organizations must have to enable them. This graphic pulled from the report explains:

Levels of virtual engagement
Levels of virtual engagement

Creator: “I want to own this.”

  • Establish a community
  • Create blog / podcast
  • Upload video content

Contributor: “I want to be part of this.”

  • Review a product
  • Answer a question
  • Contribute to the community

Opportunist: “Since I’m here…”

  • Provide purchase feedback
  • Vote
  • Ask a question
  • Forward to others

Lurker: “I’ll reap the rewards.”

  • Click, transact
  • Read product reviews
  • Read blog / message boards

I shouldn’t be over-critical of the Gartner report or the conclusions they reach, since it’s certainly useful to recognise there are different levels of engagement in any social network or virtual community. However, I have two points to make:

  1. The ‘Creator’ falls tantalisingly into the seemingly well-established ‘1 % rule‘. In my experience, this is only true for social networks or unmentored/unfacilitated Communities of Practice (CoPs), where members or  users are entirely self-directed. Based on the evidence I’ve seen in the IDeA CoP platform (550 communities), facilitated communities can have as much as 40% Creators (i.e. creating original content).
  2. I hate the term ‘Lurkers’ and refuse to use it in any dialogue I’m having about social networking or communities of practice. It seems to infer some sort of socially unacceptable behaviour and misses the point that these people are getting some value from the network or community. So – Gartner and anyone else who wishes to continue categorising behaviour, can we drop the term ‘Lurkers’ and call these people ‘Spectators’, which is a more socially accepted term, and infers these people are gaining something from the experience.

Anyway, and on reflection, as a 50-something year old, I guess I might prefer being categorised as Generation V as opposed a Baby Boomer!

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Social Network Analysis – measuring the immeasurable.

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Euan Semple comments on the topic of social network analysis  (or measuring the immeasurable!).

Euan identifies two points that make him nevous about SNA:

"The first is because the activity is invariably couched in terms of
one group – managers, the business – mapping the relationships of
everyone else – the people prepared to open up and use the social tools
in the first place.

The second is because they seek to make explicit something that is
much better left implicit. We can all work out what the network is and
where the good guys are from the using the tools and inhabiting the
environments they create without having to have it drawn out for us.

If I felt that someone else was mapping my conversions and the
relationships they represented – and wasn’t prepared to have the same
done to them, I would soon stop talking.

As I have commented on the blog, I detect a form of management paranoia; they don’t really
understand what social networking is all about, they don’t want to dip
their toes into what they consider to be muddy water, yet at the same
they want to understand it in the only way that makes sense to them –
numbers and statistics.

What worries me are the conclusions they may draw from this imprecise and flawed method of evaluation!

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