looking at the big picture of productivity

Imagine you lead a large distributed organization. Headquarters has worked hard on a new service offering, which is almost ready. Before it's officially unveiled, however, the new service needs field testing. Of your many locations, which ones would provide the ideal testing grounds? You want solid feedback from multiple perspectives, but you can only afford to test at a small fraction of your locations.

In this scenario and many others, executives are turning to social network analysis (SNA) to understand and improve business fundamentals like productivity, leadership, and innovation. For example, below is an actual network used by Connective Associates to identify the optimal field test sites for a distributed organization. Based on archived communications, the network shows how some locations merely receive instructions from headquarters, while other locations interact, generate feedback, and are more productive test sites:

Inspired by this example and many others, business strategists have joined forces with sociologists, computer scientists, physicists, and others in an explosion of SNA research. They have combined to create the first rigorous quantitative metrics that measure human elements of organizational performance, such as collaboration, competition, influence, and trust. For example, successful businesses now use SNA to track collaboration as an internal performance indicator, in order to connect this critical capability directly to larger goals such as profits and growth.

SNA also helps businesses to

  • Generate maximal value from post-merger integration
  • Optimize productivity with a combined view of processes and relationships
  • Recognize key opportunities for leadership development
  • Accelerate innovation within teams and across partnerships.

The Advantage of Network Visualization

Over the past ten years, Connective Associates has helped transform the theory of networks into practical business tools. As sophisticated as these tools are mathematically, their visual impact is often even more powerful. Showing a group a network map of their relationships almost always produces a big “aha” moment. Individuals suddenly see how they are part of a whole system and shift perspective from “me” to “us.”

With the power of visualization comes considerable responsibility. There are as many convincing ways to draw a network as there are ways to tell a good story, and so before drawing anything it's important to understand what kind of picture will best convey the intended message.

Collaboration vs. Hierarchy

The best way to appreciate the story-telling power of network visualization is to look at some pictures. Consider the following two networks of working relationships. All other things being equal, which organization is more adept at change?

Business people give mixed responses to this question. Some answer that the less hierarchical left group (A) would be better at change, because of the wealth of informal connections. Others say that the more hierarchical right group (B) would be better at change, because of the influence of the central authority figure.

Not many people come up with the correct answer, that the above two networks are in fact identical. Did you?

The above example demonstrates how the traditional layouts generated by most social network software (such as network (A)) are actually biased to convey organizational flatness. In a collaborative environment, that may be just the desired effect. But when authority and hierarchy are a legitimate part of the business problem at hand, then a vertically oriented network drawing may be more appropriate.

Just the Beginning of the Story

Social network analysis is emerging as a truly transformational business tool. This article introduced just a few business applications of SNA. It also touched on the critical impact of network visualization. For additional reading on accelerating business results with a network perspective, see the Connective Associates on-line journal, Connectedness. For provocative reading on network visualization, see “Do You See What I Want You to See?” by Cathleen McGrath and Jim Blythe, and "Exploratory Network Visualization," by Ulrik Brandes, Joerg Raab, and Dorthea Wagner.