Monday, 6 July 2009

When Social Becomes Business

I chaired a powerful practitioner showcase event launching the University of Greenwich Business School’s new Centre for Business Network Analysis on Friday 3rd July.

What was exciting about this event was the timing: it’s clearly the case that the techniques of Social Network Analysis are about to manage a shift into offering potential new value. I found this interesting in terms of my own definition of knowledge – as really existing when you take an information pattern and put it into a new context (business) to create new potential value (and not just about being known or existential).

Headlines (as far as I was concerned) included the following:

· “Social knowledge architecture is more important than physical location” – David Ewbank, VP Lifesciences, CRA international.

· “Social network maps are a powerful message about existing communication and collaboration behaviours” – Bonnie Cheuk, Global Head of Knowledge & Information, Environmental Resources Management.

· “Network analysis is the key to (understanding) power in organisations (but can be ambiguous)” and “Power accrues to those who understand the amplifier within the network” – David Krackhardt, Professor of Organisations, Carnegie-Mellon University.

Putting it all together, it is clear that constructing social networks or maps is one thing, but interpreting the opportunity emergent within the structure requires a deep and ongoing interest in the context in which the pattern is found.

It was clear that interpretation to deliver emergent value depends on integrating at least 4 levels of information (which makes it an art!):

1. The social context (where is the group in terms of its social development, have they just gone through a defining crisis, or have they avoided one?)
2. The nature of the question posed about the relationship to be explored (academics linguistic naivity can mean dangerous results for participants’ honesty).
3. The position of the outlier: just because someone is not included in the social net, this may not mean that they are ineffective, just that they haven’t built the relationship capital required or been able to participate in crisis and show their “right stuff”; or they have decided that the core business is doomed.
4. The form that power takes in the shape and interaction of the network: is it reward, inclusion/ exclusion, resources or the reinforcement of groupthink?

To some extent, it feels as though all social network analyses share aspects of the Rohrshach inkblot test, Milgram’s infamous “learning” and Zimbardo’s “prison” experiments in being a means of surfacing hidden social scripts about corrent behaviour, in unpacking what people believe really work (but may not know consciously).

And it’s at this point that we realise that we are at the cusp of a new form of knowledge, as it shifts from being academic and interesting and becomes new practice. It is the awareness of the proximity of new practice that has led to the Centre for Business Network at the Greenwich Business School, deciding to focus on developing a cohort of collaborating partner organisations to learn to harden the interpretation of what were social, but will be, business networks for unpacking the hidden value in organisations by uncovering the social networks that critically affect your business performance and could make the difference in a recession:

• Streamlining operations by sharing inputs and reconfiguring the way people work together
• Tapping into previously isolated pockets of creativity to improve products & services
• Identifying influential customers and new markets, and
• Constructing business networks for competitive advantage

One of our next steps is going to be about building practitioner capability in terms of techniques, approaches to interpretation and lesson capture through case studies and the development of validated metrics.

If you are interested in joining or learning more, email: