Network analysis, as understood for our purposes, is a method to analyze people and their relationships. This approach aims at the description of structures and positions from a network perspective. This kind of network research describes relationships of interactions between network members, known as “actors”, like individuals or organizations, through precise and subtle analysis that tries to avoid simplifications. This approach remains on a merely descriptive level. Nevertheless, our methods and applications go beyond a merely descriptive position of a neutral passive observer in that they provide suggestions for practical interventions and follow-up activities to influence network actors, their relationships, and network structure to improve communication of knowledge within and between individuals and organizations.
About Social Network Analysis
The method of social network analysis has become an established method of research in social sciences during the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially due to the foundation of the International Society of Social Network Analysis (INSNA) in 1978 by Barry Wellman and its journals “Connections” and “Social Networks“, dedicated to social network analysis, as well as organizing the annual “Sunbelt International Conference on Social Network Analysis”. Although a research method of social science, social network analysis has always been open to and strongly influenced by other disciplines and vice versa. Following Scott (1991: 7-38), social network analysis has its origins in three main traditions of research.
First, there are the two approaches from social-psychology of Kurt Lewin’s field theory (Lewin 1936, 1951) and Jacob Moreno’s sociometry (Moreno 1934).
The second main line of social network analysis as perceived today is the exploration of patterns of interpersonal configurations and the formation of “cliques” developed at Harvard University during of the 1930s and 1940s. The major influences on this tradition were Radcliffe-Brown (1965 (1952)) and his research team (and, through them, Durkheim). They investigated the “informal relations” in large-scale systems (like organizations or cities, for example) and the phenomenon of sub-group or “clique” building.
The third tradition of social network approach, also inspired by the research of Radcliffe-Brown (1965 (1952)), is the work of active field workers at the Department of Social Anthropology of the University of Manchester, among them John Barnes and Clyde Mitchell. During the early 1960s, they studied character and quality of individual relations in social systems, their reciprocity, duration, and intensity, emphasizing conflict and change instead of integration and cohesion. Their arguments were influential in Britain, nevertheless, it was in fact at Harvard that the real breakthrough occurred. Harrison White and his associates “produced a torrent of papers which firmly established social network analysis” (Scott 1991: 33). It was the public reception of Mark Granovetter’s article “The Strength of Weak Ties” of 1973, published in the American Journal of Sociology, that popularized the viewpoint of social network analysis and stimulated many other studies.
In addition to the origins of social network analysis as outlined by Scott (1991), the concentration on communication processes in networks adds another historical line of concept development: approaches of communication science (see also Schenk 1984: 270-317). Origins of network analysis in communication science can be found in the model of the two-step flow of communication by Lazarsfeld et al. (see Lazarsfeld et al. 1965 (1944): 151-152, Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955: 32-34). They found that interpersonal communication plays an important role for the diffusion of information through so-called opinion leaders. While the two-step flow of communication takes into account only direct relationships between a set of people (the opinion leader and others), this model was extended to more complex network structures that also take the indirect relationships of network actors into account. Influences of the opinion leader model can be found until today in the discussions of brokerage and gatekeeper positions in network structures.
SNA as a KM Tool
A variety of literature examines informal networks and communities and their role in knowledge and innovation management (see, e.g., Armbrecht et al. 2001, Brown and Duguid 1991, Collinson and Gregson 2003, Jain and Triandis 1990, Lesser 2001, Liyanage et al. 1999, Mertins et al. 2003, Nahapiet and Ghoshal 1998, Wenger 1999, Zanfei 2000). Discussions of network structures in management literature were strongly influenced by Drucker (1989) and Savage (1990). All of these authors stress the importance of networks for knowledge sharing. Organizations that develop networks both internal and external to their organization are supposed to be able to deal with knowledge more effectively (see, e.g., Kanter 2001).
Even so, despite all of the literature that identifies communities and networks as effective environments for the sharing of personal knowledge, there is a lack of systematic methods for practical use to identify knowledge communities and networks, to analyze their structure and to take measures to actively support them. Here, the potential method of social network analysis (SNA) comes to play an important role as an effective knowledge management (KM) tool. Social network analysis provides basic approaches as a method for expert localization and knowledge transfer as well as models of interpretations and ways of interventions. Social network analysis provides a rigorous analytical foundation for the implementation of practical methods in knowledge communication and management for analyzing informal communities and networks.
Our customer-sized application of social network analysis suits all practical needs as a strategic tool for expert localization, identification of knowledge communities and analysis of the structure of intra- and inter-organizational knowledge flows. Our method evaluates availability and distribution of critical knowledge (core competencies) and facilitates
- the strategic development of organizational knowledge,
- the transfer and sustainable conservation of implicit knowledge,
- the development of core competencies (like leadership development),
- the creation of opportunities to improve communication processes
- the identification and support of communities of practice,
- the harmonization of knowledge networks (for example, after mergers and acquisitions),
- the sustainable management of relationships between distributed sites and external partners.
Basic Steps and Application
Our application of social network analysis for the evaluation and support of your organizational knowledge communication is divided into seven different steps. These primary steps include:
- clarifying objectives and defining the scope of analysis (knowledge domain),
- developing the survey methodology and designing the questionnaire,
- identifying the network members,
- collecting the survey data and gathering further information from other resources,
- analyzing the data through formal methods of social network analysis,
- interpreting the results of analysis,
- designing interventions and taking actions.
Do you want to learn more about our approach of SNA as a KM tool? Then take a look at our book or feel free to contact us!