Sunday, August 20, 2006

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.

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