How To Tell Your Story Visually, Using Social Network Analysis (SNA)

In my previous blog post, I mentioned about the importance of analysing social network to design better knowledge management initiative and collaboration. In this post, as promised, I’m going to reveal how to administer social network analysis (SNA) without conducting the dreaded SNA survey.

Before I begin, I would like you to cast away your natural tendency, or should I say the academic-beast within you?, to get optimal and all-encompassing results. SNA, in my opinion, is not about maximising the result, but it is about satisficing – that is getting adequate result that meets our needs. What I’m trying to say here, is this: there is no point of administering SNA in a grand-scale and generic way! You would encounter difficulties in interpreting various relationships among the people, since relationship evolves over time while SNA is nothing but a static snapshot of relationships.

To pin-down the meaning of relationships so that you could analyse it before it evolves, you need to specify the context for the SNA. Think about your own work environment, or a situation that you are familiar with. Which collaboration that doesn’t makes sense to you? Be specific on this. Identify: (a) What you are trying to accomplish; (b) Who the collaborators are and their skills; (c) What tasks are involved.

Once you have done that, the next thing you need to do, is to change your perspective from SNA as an analytical tool, to SNA as a design tool. This has two big implications:

  1. Storytelling. Rather than administering SNA from a third-party eye, why not using SNA as a means to tell your story? That implies, you don’t have to come up with questions that suit  everybody’s work environment. Heck, you don’t even need to get accurate depiction of the social network. It doesn’t matter! You just need to draw up the social network from your perspective. Your story!
  2. Building collaboration prototypes. Once your story is out, you could get others to tell their story. Once everyone’s story is heard, the collaborators should engage in dialogue on how to collaborate better (build collaboration prototypes), by taking into consideration: (a) the team’s resources; (b) the members’ expertise; and (c) the role of influential members. For example, you could get better collaboration by building capacity, or increasing the influence of a certain member.

Let me illustrate what I meant, using a personal example.

I was in a team that tasked to build a website for an organisation-wide learning event. Now, as we all know, website requires planning, content writing and programming skills. It so happened that, in our team, only me (R) had the programming skills (ok, it is not programming skills, it is a skill to use adobe dreamweaver). But, there were two of us – J and R – who had the software installed on our laptop.

So, I thought (remember, I’m talking about my perspective here) the collaboration that happened did not make any sense, because the two persons-in-charge of the project: J and K, should be empowered to upload the content to the website directly. Getting me as the “content uploader guy” (as mentioned, I’m the only person who knows how to do it), would increase the cost of the collaboration. In other words, the collaboration could be done without me, if someone else in the team knew how to use the software. Lesser collaborators, same result. Definitely, an increase in team’s productivity!

Ok, the only problem was: how to communicate this to my boss. Imagine me saying: “boss, can you exclude me from this project? I’ve got more important thing to do”. I think she would kill me. So, I decided to use SNA as a visual storytelling technique. First, I drew this up:

The light blue arrows represented reporting lines. The red arrows represented the content flow. The brown arrows represented the ideas flow. The green arrows represented planning and decision making. The orange arrows represented access to software.

Second, I defined influence in this social network as the number of inward light blue arrows. So, YY was very influential, since she had 5 inward light blue arrows (guess, who my boss is). The second most-influential person was K, since she had 2 inward light blue arrows. The third most-influential person was R (that is, me). Although R didn’t have anybody reporting to him, he could consider adobe dreamweaver reporting to him, since he was the only one who knew how to use it. The rest of the team had equal influence.

Third, I downloaded and installed a free SNA software – SocNetV. To depict the social network in the software, I defined influence as the node’s size. So the more influential a person was, the bigger his/her node was, in the social network. And then I merged the other arrows into one line.

Here was my social network:

I used yellow color for K and J node, because they were the persons-in-charge of the project. While I depicted adobe dreamweaver, as a green square, because it is a software not a person.

The good thing about having social network nicely drawn-up was, my colleagues and I could immediately saw that the collaboration wasn’t an effective one, because:

  • J, as one of the persons-in-charge of the project, should be more empowered. In other words, J ought to have more influence in the team.
  • R could take more responsibilities, considering he was the third most-influential team member.
  • If R left the team, nobody would be able to utilise adobe dreamweaver. R had an important knowledge that he ought to share with the rest of the team.

Of course, there were many other things that I could interpret from the above social network. But that’s outside the scope of this blog post.

Most importantly, I have shown you that you can use SNA as a visual storytelling tool and prototyping tool to design better collaboration. That way, you can use SNA as a conversation (dialogue) starter.

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2 thoughts on “How To Tell Your Story Visually, Using Social Network Analysis (SNA)

  1. no offence but exactly how do you think that you have skipped any steps in your SNA? What you have done is substitute the surveys with your pre-existing knowledge of the system and that’s fine but in most cases you should not do that. It worked for your case but generally you want to find the *true* story and not to prove your understanding of the way the system works. Also SNA is always used to provide a functional snapshot of the way a system works and you seem to suggest different.

    I am not trying to belittle your post in any way however, all you have done is discovered an analytical tool i.e. SNA which is not that new and you have a very basic understanding of it. Provided that you modelled your organisational structure correctly (again the problem of objective vs. subjective data) I can see a bit of a problem in your organisation. Your “leader” is not the actual leader at all. Based on the chart that you created, it would seem like J is the unofficial leader of that team. Of course you have a bit of a problem with that chart because there is no weight associated with the connections and you also never include resources in SNA regardless of how important they are. But provided that connections are of equal weight then your current team leader (the largest circle) is not the leader at all and that is a major problem there.

    However, there is a very large if here. I am almost certain that there are missing connections in the chart. Most team leaders have contact with all of the team members and you should depict even informal contact such as asking verbally for progress reports and such.

    A good list of social network and organisational network analysis can be found at
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_network_analysis_software

    • hi grouver,

      no worries. no offence taken. :). Thank you very much for reading my post and spending time to comment on it.

      I’m quite interested in SNA, but you seem to be more experienced than me in this area. I have tried to convince my organisation about the importance of conducting the “proper” SNA – the one that Rob Cross explained in his book. Alas, the management doesn’t see the benefit of doing it. So my question is: how do you justify SNA investment?

      Also, in your opinion, what would be the potential pitfalls that I would encountered, if I use the method in this blog post, and then I collect more stories from others, to build up a more comprehensive SNA? The idea is to join-up these mini SNAs to create a larger SNA.

      Thank you so much.

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