Finding value inside-out: Discovering change leaders using social network analysis

Most organizations in today’s competitive landscape are either undergoing changes, have just completed implementing change efforts, or are beginning to consider doing so. While many take the leap, few manage to meet their deadlines on time, on budget, or on good terms with their stakeholders. As mentioned in the relaunch of our Dialogue platform, in a 2014 survey of more than 900 executives, 93 per cent of respondents reported that their corporations were in some state of transformation.

Two years later, in February of this year, a survey of 300 senior managers found that lack of communication was the single most important reason for ailing change management. In fact, a quick search on change management will reveal hundreds of articles on the importance of communications in implementing changes. The most frequent communication mistakes include: communicating the change too late, not considering the appropriate channels, and failing to reach all employees.

These common communication mistakes can lead to detrimental hitches that prevent or delay the success of a change initiative. More specifically, poor communication invites confusion and fear from employees, resulting in potential instability and discontent. Communicating too late or oversaturating employees with communications can also prevent buy-in and impede long-term success. Recognizing these common pitfalls and having a good grasp of the way communication flows within your organization can aid the likelihood of a successful transformation.

Social network analysis (SNA), the mapping and measurement of interpersonal relationships, can be utilized as an important early step to transformational change. Originally theorized by sociologists and built upon by mathematicians, SNA is not only used by social scientists of all disciplines but also computer scientists and biologists. Social network analysis has even been found to efficiently describe dynamics of networks in various environments; from medical offices, interracial friendship choice among teenagers, and labor negotiations. The United States government even uses SNA as an approach to investigate terrorism. While it may seem obvious, SNA should not be confused with the study of individuals and their attributes. The premise of the research centers on the relations between individuals, groups, and/or social institutions rather than the nodes themselves.

By using mathematics and visualization to map the structure of relationships between people, interests and other entities within a larger system, researchers can study the relationship between different nodes. The nodes in a network are the people and groups, while the links represent relationships or flows between the nodes. In essence, social network analysis reveals the nervous system of an organization. Analyzing the location and groupings in a network reveals the roles and groupings in the system. Where are the hubs? Who is isolated? Who acts as a bridge between multiple departments? These insights help leaders better understand and target the all-too-often intangible side of their organization.

The ability to systematically map the connections within an organization, provides leaders with vital knowledge they need before communicating or implementing change efforts. By revealing important connections, such as the hubs and gatekeepers, leaders are better equipped to manage change. Gatekeepers are those who broker knowledge and bridge multiple departments or areas of an organization. Their wide reach can aid in the dissemination of information and alleviate the struggle of reaching all employees. Moreover, the hubs are often well-connected and have significant influence. Removal of hubs in an organization can cause a network to crash, conversely, engaging a hub can make them ideal change champions.

By revealing the formal and informal networks within organizations, leaders are in a better position to create a strategy and engage their stakeholders throughout the change initiative. Tactics such as dialogue, early buy-in, championing change agents, and pulse checks will prove more fruitful when the most appropriate audience segments (nodes) are engaged.

After Thoughts

In truth, SNA can take analysis one step further than just helping leaders understand the way communication flows; it provides a systematic approach to uncovering the relationship networks and sentiments of influencers (nodes) in human dynamics and has the power to examine the health of the entire organization. This knowledge can allow leaders to participate fully in the design and strategy of how the new system needs to work and drive the successful transformational change.

While SNA has proved useful for many social scientists, it is still breaking ground within businesses. Nevertheless, social network analysis provides leaders with vital information in otherwise hard to reach spaces that can make the difference between an ineffective change and a successful one.

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