Sunday, August 20, 2006

When Good Social Networks Go Horribly Wrong (And What You Can Do to Fix Them)

When last we saw our heroes, they were very busy eating at a rather chic spot in New York while managing to carry on a conversation, hold a baby, talk to friends from the Bronx, and gesticulate a lot.

I'm not sure we were the neatest table in the place.

However, it was at this point in the discussion that the question was raised: why do the results of network analysis sometimes go horribly wrong?

It's A Pain to Fill Out Forms

Many network analysts begin by asking employees to fill out surveys to list their skill sets. This can cause problems.

First of all, the surveys are often long and involved. As Nancy White pointed out, all the information must be present for the data to be truly useful to the social network analysis.

As Dean Landsman added, this problem can be mitigated either through financial rewards or by asking managers to begin filling out what they know about their teams' skills and interests. Once the data is plotted, more can always be added.

In fact, Dean suggested that the analysis will be more accurate by beginning with the managers' view of their team-members' skill sets rather than by having team-members fill out their own surveys. Any individuals' biases and blindness about his or her own talents can get in the way of gathering useful information.

But Do Managers Necessarily See More Clearly Than Their Teams?

In the same way that every employee is not a natural connector, every manager might not be a natural (or even trainable) expert at identifying areas of prowess in his or her own team. Just like their team-members, managers' views can be colored by their needs, personal issues, an their own set of biases. It's best, then, to invite a facilitator to walk the managers through such an analysis. The results will help ensure accuracy and identify the managers who might have enough natural talent to serve as facilitators as the network information is updated.

A Bigger Problem

As discussed at great length in other posts, often business leaders want to determine and measure the outcome of processes in advance. It's a shortsighted and dangerous strategy with social networking. Just as a creative person can't be cajoled into creating art on demand, the best connectors create networks as they appear to them.

As Nancy White says, this is exactly where the strategic challenge lies -- how much should people outside the network (say, those in charge) activate and push the networkers to do their job and how much should they stay away to let the connectors be free to do what they do best?

You can do a lot of damage with network analysis if you use the data to legislate from outside. Social networks don't work when they're treated as though they can be activated at will, as though by a switch. Connectors will not be able to do their best work under these circumstances. Yet, when is it a good idea to give some direction? And what is the best way to give it?

Networks as Organic: Members as Nodes

Dean added to this discussion that there are two important points to keep in mind:

1. Networks are made up of living people who excel at times and at other times will not. Furthermore, these people have responsibilities beyond the network -- to projects within their departments, to their lives outside of work, and so on.

2. Networks are made of nodes that do not work well with a hub and spoke model. The network must be flexible enough that if one node goes down, there are ways to go elsewhere or around it in order to get the information or skills you need. If someone in the network changes jobs or leaves, it shouldn't bring down the network.

So How To Make It Work?

Companies must change their values and compensation structures for social networks to foster innovation and optimum team-building. Reward people for the ways in which they disseminate knowledge rather than for the fact that they originated it or hold it.

An Example

Nancy gave an example in the Michael Smith Genome Center in British Columbia. Every piece of data has an RSS feed and is distributed. Raw data, as well as collections of analyses, are available to everyone in Canada (in the case of government funded projects) and to a smaller network for those that are funded by private organizations.

Scientists are rewarded not on the basis of published papers but on the quality of the data streams. Managers are rated on their ability act as filters -- to route the data streams to those who need them. Higher-level managers are rewarded on their ability to identify strategic opportunities.

The system reduces the power of seniority and raises the value of connecting ideas with those who are interested. This fosters innovation.

And So?

Social network analysis is an excellent tool to optimize a company's talent. It can help you graph where the skills lie, improve processes, and solve problems in new ways that lead to innovation.

However, networks are organic and require guardians whose talent allows them to grow in appropriate ways and to leverage resources for maximum value. However, leadership must rethink their reward structure and trust the network guardians to experiment in an informed way. This requires long-term thinking, experimentation, and the willingness to let go of control.

Social Network Analysis: What Can It Do For You?

At lunch today, Nancy White (with the curly hair), Dean Landsman (with the beard) and I (the blond in the back) fell into a conversation about social network analysis, the reasons it's useful, and the drawbacks. If you wanted to boil down the process and its value into a page, how would you frame it?

Please Note: The following comes from my notes of the conversation I took while eating brunch. As it's not easy to be both an accurate stenographer and well fed at exactly the same time, I ask Nancy or Dean to speak up if I've got egg on my face anywhere below.

Everything's Math

Dean Landsman led with the claim that every process can be mathematically plotted and social network analysis creates graphs, curves, and charts using skill sets. I would add that with social networks, because people and their capabilities are the data points, social networks present a kind of math whose values are all variables.

So that's the process. What's the point?

Cubing Numbers Works: Not So Always With People

Most business leaders will tell you that they are interested in maximizing resources by leveraging the talent of their workforce. However, most of these are either not aware of their full stable of capabilities or do not make it easy for different groups to communicate regularly. In many cases, marketing professionals don't hob nob with the accountants, business analysts might not communicate directly with the sales team, and none of these groups usually encounter the C-suite.

Social network analysts use surveys to take stock of each employee's skill sets. Each skill is listed in order of strength. If you add an interest analysis, done in a parallel way, will uncover both motivations for hard work and skills that had before gone unnoticed. You can also capture what might otherwise be considered intangibles in work and learning style that will help you build stronger teams.

Finally, at its best, social network analysis breaks down walls that separate people by rank, discipline, and tenure. Rather than tackling challenges by department, the data allows problems to be addressed by people of the appropriate combination of skill sets, regardless of where they sit or what they do.

So Now What?

One of the most important skills to identify in this process is that of successful social networking. Everyone is not equally gifted as a connector, and as Nancy White says, every company only needs a few. These connectors are the people who can identify where resources can be matched and create the connections among people, teams, and projects throughout the organization. These people are called network guardians or network weavers.

For more on the essential nature of this role for successful business practice, see last week's discussion.

An Example

You've got a software development project and need a logistics expert. You know from graphing your company's talents that there is no one in the current software team. With data from social network analysis, you find exactly the right person -- you bring in someone who has this expertise, even if she works in the advertising department. Through collaboration, advertising and software will learn about the other's processes and thinking.

Beyond the problem at hand, this knowledge can inform the product of each going forward. Furthermore, the project benefits from more than one perspective, and this is impossible when teams are kept separate. For How To's, see the post on can lead to innovation>June Holley.

For more on this, please see the next post.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How to Talk About Business Trends: Podcast with Howard Greenstein

You might remember a discussion of Linda Stone's discussion of trends in terms of where people put their attention. It's' brilliant thinking, and presents a persuasive vision of the future in terms of where technology meets human desire (defined as opportunity).

The only challenge I present is that Linda doesn't acknowledge how this could change when considering cultural, educational, financial, geographical, and other issues that separate many American professionals from everyone else. I'm not asking Linda to address every group. I'm only suggesting that her argument would be stronger if she acknowledges the parameters of the people effected by the trends she describes.

Howard Greenstein interviewed me in a podcast on the way to the Uplift Academy meeting last week, and he focused in on this topic. You can find it here: Just scroll down to the Howard's shows and click "play it."

Feedback is certainly welcome. And for more information on Howard, take a look at the piece from MeshForum.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

After a Birthday Break: More on Networks and Innovation

After a week off for birthday festivities and am back to continue the conversation from the last post on networks and innovation.

Networking: Why A Geeky Noun Is an Essential Verb for Innovation

The idea that networks make new ideas possible through collaboration seems obvious to those who already serve as guardians of such networks. To those who use them in more narrow ways -- for specific sales goals, for example -- it's time to wake up to what you might be missing. Think long-term. Think R&D. The more people you can connect to each other to solve problems, the more likely one of these solutions will be one for which you've been looking on your own without success.

What to Look For and Why

June Holley organizes this strategy beautifully with software that can provide metrics for all those who feel that a traditional sort of measurement is the criteria for real progress. Her presentations on smart networks are online -- I won't reproduce them here.

However, the main points to stress from the overlap in her and my own work on innovation are:

1. Talented, rigorous, and energetic relationship/alliance guardians are competitive necessities in a world where everyone is a live node on a global network. If you don't find the right combination for innovative thinking, someone else will.

2. Network-building is a long-term, ongoing process that should enable both specific goals as well as those that will emerge over time. The latter will be unknown until they appear, but they are also competitive necessity. This is where the real innovation happens, both in the combining of resources by the network guardian and by the individuals within the relationship she fosters.

3. Networks and their results are both intangible and quite tangible indeed. They should be mapped and re-mapped with appropriate software. The relationships that seem less useful should be considered and managed with as much care as those that seem immediately useful (see 2).

4. The network guardian's responsibilities include finding and cultivating relationships for an organization, pairing relationships for the sake of innovation with each other (even if the organization itself is not immediately implicated), and training others to do her work as they take over pieces of the networks. The guardian must be able to identify those who have the kind of talent and interest in this area and then train them -- as well as those within the relationships she cultivates -- so that the networking effect becomes exponential.

Comments are welcome -- I've seen this work wonders. Anyone else working this way to excellent effect.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Neworks for Sustainable Innovation

With some of my clients, it has been challenging to articulate the value of creating networks that do not have a predictable relationship to revenue generation. Businesses generally want a timeline for ROI and a business case mapped out from the start.

However, if thinking is associative, and a business plan uses only known quantities, then the results are unlikely to be surprising. Only by introducing something less predictable, along with the risk that it brings, can innovators maximize their ability to see things new.

And Then I Met June Holley . . .

At an Uplift Academy meeting this week, I met June Holley of Network Weavers. She clearly articulated how to build social/political/business networks and also how to map them. The software is in beta. However, I found even more useful the explicit articulation of the ways in which sustainable innovation depends on strong networks and the ways in which they can be built.

How This Is Usually Done

Most people would have a hard time disagreeing to the premise that successful business is all about relationships. Sure, there are business development departments (read: sales), non-profit development people (read: fundraising), and high-level executives who play golf, tennis, or dine with other high-level executives (read: closed system).

A Better Way

June suggests the important of something bigger: someone in charge of expanding a central network for the general good of the organization in all areas. This role she calls a Network Guardian. The overall network can be broken down into smaller networks as needed and organized or developed by other network guardians, depending on the size and needs within the organization.

These networks are built thoughtfully but without the expectation that each relationship will yield direct financial returns. Instead, volume within the network makes room for experimentation. In turn, there is room for both the inevitable failure that comes with risk as there is for greater success than if the experiments had never happened.

Where Does Innovation Come In?

As discussed before in more detail, the more resources to which you have access, the more likely there is to be innovation.

Also as discussed in depth in earlier posts, developing one's own (and employees') resources to the fullest extent is the first step to sustainable innovation. Then, the more new perspectives and process that can be considered in relation to one's own, the more likely it is to find effective solutions to challenges faced by your organization.

Of course, sometimes these solutions are only new to you. A process that is old hat to one group can take on new possibilities when introduced to a new context. After all, what one culture, industry, or discipline takes for granted might be an innovation in your business that makes the difference between success and failure.
There's also the value of collaboration.

A group of heads together -- if they're good heads -- often is more effective than the sum of its parts. Again, people from surprising combinations of disciplines or job descriptions can produce equally surprising (and effective) results.

And So?

My experience building networks for non-profits and for-profits alike has consistently proved to expand brand and leverage resources. However, there are not a lot of organizations that use network guardians such as myself with all the company's functions in mind.

The value of relationship development without the promise of direct revenue generation is too often overlooked. Instead of seeing in these networks something you can't measure, consider them directly related to essential R&D.

Think big. Think long term. Think networks that can be applied to every group in your firm (including those that serve internal purposes only).

With an effective guardian, your networks could become a source of sustainable surprise. What could be better for innovation than that?

For more on June's work and the process in particular, please see Nancy White's post and the next post here.