Making the invisible visible

As most executives know, the way an organisation really works bears little resemblance to its hierarchical chart, that tree-diagram of descending rank. The way responsibility, influence and power are distributed across any large group of people is always more complex than a simple pyramid structure.

Technology now exists that can, according to its makers, discover the true social structure of an organisation by analysing its communications. As Charles Armstrong, CEO of social computing vendor Trampoline Systems, argues, these systems can help large enterprises manage their human resources in a fashion that has not traditionally worked at a corporate-wide level.  

“Good managers have good antennae for understanding the informal network that surrounds them,” he argues. “But even the most brilliant manager can only really understand the informal network of a few hundred people around them.”

Armstrong points to pharmaceutical manufacturer Monsanto as a sophisticated user of social network analysis (SNA).

“Monsanto conducts a social network analysis every year to discover some very specific things,” he explains. “They identify people who are the brokers, who are particularly good at linking other people together, and they promote them as mentors. They get people who are particularly influential involved in the early adoption groups for new initiatives. And people with particularly large social networks were found to have natural leadership potential.”

Sometimes, the benefits of social network analysis derive from looking at the organisation from a bird’s eye view.

Armstrong points to another Trampoline customer: “We work with a systems integrator, and early on conducted a social network analysis of all their email,” he recalls. “When we showed the diagram to the CEO, he instantly saw that there were a large number of projects where they were collaborating with their biggest competitor.

None of these projects were particularly large, but added together they represented a huge amount of collaboration with one of their biggest rivals.”

But other benefits derive at a more granular level. Applications maker SAP recently revealed its SNA software, based on technology it acquired with business intelligence vendor Business Objects in 2007.

For David Mayer, vice president of emerging technologies at SAP, the technologies will give businesses insight into how their best workers operate.

“We are very interested in capturing business practices – the way people actually get various tasks done – without constraining them. A lot of these practices take place outside applications. You can’t design these practices, because they are improvised and they are ad hoc,” he says.

“The social network provides a diagram of these improvised practices,” he says. “And once you capture these practices you can begin to share them.”

Ray Wang, vice president and senior analyst at Forrester Research, sees merit in this argument. “When you look at the more innovative processes within an organisation, you find that they are typically very ill defined,” he says.

“This is where the benefit of joining enterprise applications and social networks comes into play” Wang explains. “You may well find a whole raft of new business processes that emerge when you watch people’s organic behaviour.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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