Connecting the Connectors


      Bookmark and Share

Going away on holiday provides an opportunity to catch up on reading some of the many books I have bought over the last few months. In the days when I commuted to London, reading was an excellent way of coping with overcrowded carriages and delayed trains. With no daily train journeys for the last six years, I find that I have acquired an embarrassingly large collection of books I have not yet read, and yet I still go down to the local public library to borrow more. One of the books I took to Cyprus this year was The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. I know it has been a bestseller, but I can't say that I enjoyed reading it.

The book did, however, remind me about the power of networks and the roles that people have in them. An approach to understanding networks, which I find very easy to assimilate and work with, is that of social network analysis (SNA). (I'm old enough to remember the days when SNA stood for IBM's System Network Architecture!) Awhile back, I wrote about personas and their value in developing information architectures. I am now finding that social network analysis is a way of helping organizations understand just how members of their staff collaborate (or don't, as the case may be) so they can then develop applications that support these networks.

SNA has its roots in sociology, and only over the last two or three years has the methodology been applied to information and knowledge networks in organizations. The first article that I saw on the subject was "The People Who Make Organizations Go—or Stop," by Rob Cross and Larry Prusak, which was published in the June 2002 issue of Harvard Business Review and still remains the clearest exposition of the methodology. The basis of the approach is that there are four roles that people play in networks. These are Central Connectors, Boundary Spanners, Information Brokers, and Peripheral Specialists. I'm not even going to try to define the importance and vulnerability of each role, because slick definitions are not very helpful. One of the benefits of SNA is that it not only helps to identify information and knowledge flows, but also identifies where organizations are at risk through staff playing a specific role either moving to a position in the organization where they can no longer play their role, or else leaving the organization altogether.

Some good illustrations of the dependency of organizations on key staff can be found in The Hidden Power of Social Networks by Cross and Andrew Parker, published in 2004 by Harvard Business School Press. Cross is one of the gurus of SNA, though I should point out that Cross prefers Organizational Network Analysis as a descriptor for the methodology. The book also includes a survey form that can be used to undertake a network analysis of the organization.

If you are starting to think about analyzing email traffic as a way of identifying networks, then you'll be interested to know that HP got there before you with its paper bearing the elegant and intriguing title, "Email as Spectroscopy: Automated Discovery of Community Structure within Organizations" (www.hpl.hp.com/research/idl/papers/email).

So what has all this to do with intranets? A great deal. Intranets should be supporting information flows, and not be just information stores (or, more typically, silos). There is a lot of talk about the role of communities of practice in organizations, but the problem here is just how you find out the members of these communities and start to provide the appropriate set of tools. Until recently, intranets as such were really not very good at supporting collaboration because the return channel in a two-way conversation was never the intranet itself, but email or a telephone call.

Now that blogs and wikis are becoming mainstream collaborative Web applications in organizations, the benefits of supporting networks with these applications will be considerable. However, the challenge is to not go around forcing these applications on networks but instead make sure that they are available as required without a lot of form-filling and corporate approval. These networks are informal. They often arise because of problems in the more well-established and visible networks (team meetings), and care is needed to avoid frightening people away with corporate rules.

My guess is that over the next 12 months, there will be an increasing array of books, reports, software packages, and conferences focusing on the subject of social network analysis. As I write, the Ark Group has announced a social network toolkit developed by Patti Anklam. One of the core sites for the subject is International Network for Social Network Analysis, though the scope of INSNA is wider than just the business-centric applications.

As with all "new" methodologies, SNA is not the definitive tool to make invisible networks visible. You are dealing with people, not electrons or bytes, and a considerable degree of sensitivity to the needs and relationships of individuals is a sine qua non for this type of work.