Independent consultant, Patti Anklam, met social network analysis more than a decade ago, and has been fond of it ever since. The renowned expert held key knowledge management positions at multiple leading companies such as Nortel Networks and Digital Equipment Corporation (now HP), and is the author of the book Net Work: A Practical Guide to Creating and Sustaining Networks at Work and in the World. As a consultant she has worked with large clients such as an international telecommunications provider and a US government research and development firm. She is a frequent speaker and writer on the topic of social network analysis.
As an expert on social network analysis, Patti’s work in corporate settings is mostly focused on collaboration practices, value network analysis, and knowledge management systems strategy and architecture. She believes that the methodology of organizational network analysis (ONA) is not about providing answers to an organization’s problems, but rather asking questions, answering which can strongly accelerate the process of positive change.
How did you get introduced to social network analysis?
I took training and worked with Rob Cross and Steve Borgatti when Rob was a researcher at the Institute for Knowledge Management (an IBM research consortium) in 2000-2002.
In what types of organizational settings or situations have you used organizational network analysis so far?
I have worked in a number of corporate settings as well as with nonprofit organizations. In the corporate settings, my work was either focused on supporting identification of communities of practice and/or organizational development questions related to knowledge management. In the nonprofit organizations I work with, the focus is on the overall network’s connectivity, showing changes over time, or in identifying the most strategic areas for making connections. For example, in many nonprofit areas, survey respondents indicate their primary interest areas or skill levels, and then I create maps showing the existing connections among people with that interest or skill. This is similar to working with communities of practice in large organizations, where we also look to see whether people with the same skills are connected across geographies.
How would you compare ONA to other, traditional diagnostic methods or tools?
I think it is an important adjunct, and rarely use it without having additional survey questions or organizational work. My ‘mantra’ is that an ONA doesn’t provide answers, but yields useful questions. It is what you DO with the questions that makes a difference, and this is where it is important to have additional information.
To what extent do today’s business leaders feel the importance (of exploiting the hidden possibilities) of their organizations’ informal networks in their managerial work?
When I began this work, it seemed to me that it was a logical and important question for leaders. I do not, however, think that leaders give it a high priority, perhaps because they are unaware that tools like ONA exist to support the diagnosis and offer practical steps for taking action.
What does the future hold for organizational network analysis?
I think that part of the reason that ONA has not become more widespread has been that it is perceived as too expensive and there is no clear return on investment for the cost. Until recently, there have not been many very accessible tools to use. The tools have required expert knowledge (and a lot of patience), so the capability has been in the hands of a small number of consultants. Recently a small number of new tools have come along (like OrgMapper), which show promise in very specific applications. I think it will still take a number of successes with the methods and publicity to help get more awareness of the potential.
ONA Case Study Example by Patti Anklam
For example, here is a network map showing responses to the question, “I frequently receive information from this person I need in order to do my job.” The size of the circle indicates hierarchy: the senior manager (GL) is the large blue dot in the center. Colors indicate geographic location: green are in the UK, others are US locations.
We could jump to conclusions seeing this map, but Patti believes that the questions we can ask from it are much more valuable. For example: ‘Why is the upper-right triangle separated so much?’ or ‘Why doesn’t the senior manager communicate to the UK staff?’. Answering these questions revealed that GL forgot to include the UK staff in the email list, and that he neglected to think of the separate triangle as a part of the company because it was part of a subgroup in the larger organization that was being spun off.
An organizational leader will usually be able to develop a hypothesis quickly to explain particular patterns that show up on a map. Sometimes, though, an explanation will require more detailed and extensive interviewing of people who are isolated, overly central to a group, or serving as vital connectors between groups.