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Who Knows Whom, and Who Knows What?

Who Knows Whom, and Who Knows What?

Social network analysis provides a clear picture of the ways that far-flung employees and divisions are working together, and can help companies identify key experts in the organization.

Employees' personal connections can be as valuable as their individual knowledge base. Social network analysis, or SNA, helps maximize a company's collective smarts

Reader ROI

  • Why social network analysis is taking off

  • How it is helping companies identify "experts" before they retire

  • How to capture social networking data without alienating employees

At first glance, it looked like your typical networking event. Three hundred research scientists from packaged-food giant Mars gathered in a Las Vegas ballroom last June, wearing name tags and working the floor. But instead of discussing the latest in M&M packaging or pet food nutrition, the scientists were roaming the room like a band of eager salespeople. Their RFID-enabled name tags lit up each time they met someone they didn't know, and their eyes widened as they watched diagrams of their social networks form on giant screens at one end of the ballroom. The diagrams expanded like giant molecules each time a manager spoke with a person new to him or her. To encourage the networking, Mars promised prizes to those with the most contacts or "points". The scientists - a largely introverted group from separate divisions in Los Angeles and New Jersey - were moving in a blur of handshakes, nods and cards changing hands.

Welcome to social networking for geeks. This particular exercise followed a yearlong study of social networks in Mars's sprawling research and development division. Top executives there wanted to improve the company's ability to innovate and were concerned that their scientists weren't networking enough with outside colleagues. To find out who was working with whom and how scientists were getting new ideas, they decided to map the group's professional contacts using a process called social network analysis (SNA). In an online survey, R&D managers were asked to name the 15 people they work most closely with and whom they go to for advice, as well as further details of their professional network. Working with Rob Cross, assistant professor of business at the University of Virginia and SNA expert, the company was able to map the network and examine data on how the scientists work - and don't work - together.

John Helferich, senior R&D vice president for Masterfoods USA, says Mars has used the SNA results to sort out relationships among key researchers. The company has determined, for instance, which scientists were overburdened (too many people were going to them for help) and is working on eliminating the need to go to senior people to get approval for things. "This speeds up innovation," Helferich says.

Companies that have been frustrated by traditional knowledge management efforts, such as Mars, are increasingly looking for ways to find out how knowledge flows through their organizations. Looking at the company org chart, it turns out, often doesn't tell the real story about who holds influence, who gives the best advice and how employees are sharing information critical for success. This all takes on greater urgency as millions of baby boomers prepare to retire over the coming decade. Social network analysis provides a clear picture of the ways that far-flung employees and divisions are working together, and can help companies identify key experts in the organization.

"SNA identifies the go-to experts and can help companies find the technical knowledge within their organization needed to develop a new drug, launch a new product and stay ahead of the competition," says David DeLong, author of Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce and a researcher at MIT's AgeLab.

SNA isn't a replacement for traditional KM tools such as knowledge databases or portals, but it can provide companies with a starting point or blueprint for how best to proceed with KM initiatives. And SNA alone can't always provide crucial information about why people behave as they do, says Hal King, CEO of market research company King, Brown & Partners. "SNA as a KM tool is basically a monodimensional analysis that still needs to be supplemented by demographics, and most importantly, attitudes," says King. As a component to a larger KM strategy, however, SNA can help companies identify key leaders and then set up mechanisms - such as "communities of practice" or other groups - so that those leaders can pass on their knowledge to colleagues.

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