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Social Network Analysis Comes of Age

By Trampoline Systems | Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Back in September I was at the Network Roundtable in Washington DC speaking on a panel and launching SONAR’s Flightdeck visualiser. The Roundtable is the premier international gathering where large enterprises using organisational network analysis (ONA) get together to swap notes on what they’re doing. It’s masterminded by Rob Cross, Professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, who’s played a leading role bringing ONA from an obscure academic discipline to a mainstream business tool.

This was my second time at the Roundtable, the first having been Autumn 2006. It was striking how the event had changed in the intervening two years. For a start there were a lot more people there, with executives from a hundred and fifty large corporations and federal agencies. But more interesting to me was the change in focus.

Two years ago discussion was mainly focused on the practicalities of how to conduct an ONA survey. This time people were talking about a wide range of different business issues they were addressing. Specific working groups had been formed around talent management, organisation change, external relationships and innovation. Meanwhile the exclusive focus on survey-based ONA had broadened to embrace other network analysis techniques, with particular interest in “passive” analysis based on mining corporate data (like we do).

It seemed to me these changes reflected the coming of age of social network analysis as an everyday business technique. During my panel session I made a prediction that within a few years it would be taken for granted that an enterprise’s information system would generate organisational diagnostics as a matter of course. A discernable buzz went through the room at this suggestion. But whereas people would have regarded this as improbable a couple of years ago, this time it was received as a credible prediction.

Over the past three months it’s become clear that something specific is happening in connection with the economic downturn. Across industries and geographies businesses are going through a wave of mergers, restructuring and leadership changes. During and after processes of this kind decision-makers urgently need to understand the situation in their organisation to rebuild competitiveness and operational effectiveness. Previously businesses have relied on anecdotal information to identify critical experts, poorly-integrated functional units, at-risk customer relationships and so forth. But such information is partial, inaccurate and often distorted by internal politics. With SONAR we are able to provide decision-makers with detailed, factual diagnostics.

Customers in this situation require diagnostic information as quickly as possible. Yesterday we launched SONAR Diagnostic to meet this specific need. Rather than installing SONAR on a customer’s corporate network and integrating it with their internal systems, we provide SONAR as a managed service. The customer just needs to provide 1-3 months of archived email and contact data for the areas of the business they’re interested in and we do the rest. After a week or two of processing we deliver a detailed report highlighting the priority factors impacting performance. Our consulting partners are available to advise on interventions to resolve any issues that are highlighted.

If a business wants to monitor the situation following the initial diagnostic they can proceed to a full SONAR installation. But the crucial thing is to deliver the initial report quickly. Now we’re able to do that.

The current downturn may prove to be the event that cements the role of social network analysis in the corporation. At times like this businesses are willing to consider significant innovations that would meet strong resistance at other times. The companies that take advantage the best available tools to respond to the challenges they face now will be in the strongest position to grow as the economy recovers.

: c :

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 10th, 2008 at 4:28 pm and is filed under Organisations & Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “Social Network Analysis Comes of Age”

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  1. Matt Moore says:

    Charles,

    The business aspects of analytics area have been tackled in detail by Tom Davenport in “Competing on Analytics”. Many organisations are immature even in their use of standard analytics (e.g. financials) so they may struggle with some of the less widely understood network-based ones.

    I think that ultimately you are right, some form of human network analytics will form a standard part of BI platforms in the next few years. But I think it’ll be at least a decade before organisations consider their use to be “business as usual”.

    The value network analysis (with their slightly different conception of how you represent and model networks) folk in San Francisco & Germany are also making a play for the network dashboard.

    Interesting times.

    Matt

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