Social network analysis on informal networks: ‘Who we know’ has a say on ‘What we know’

Informal networks
In some way or the other, we all are part of some informal networks in the organizations where we work. Through these networks, most of us if not some of us, get vital information to get our jobs done. Our collaboration with others becomes much easier when we know who would be right person to deliver the goods on time. Image credit: Pixabay

Note: The words ‘Workplaces’ and “Organizations’ have been used interchangeably within this post and they both mean the same.

Rob cross et all, in their seminal article titled “Making invisible work visible’ talk about the effects of social network analysis on informal networks in organizations. Even though the article was written in 2002, it offers much insight into the analysis of informal working relationships in workplaces and is quite relevant even now. Their analysis and research findings were implemented into many excellent companies across the globe. I have tried to crystallize and infer as much as possible from the first few pages. You can find the article here. Later on in the upcoming posts, I will try to summarize the lessons learned.

Social network analysis on informal networks within organizations has revealed that most of the innovative work happens across cross-functional units that cut across detailed work processes.

Such informal networks are usually not found in formal organizational charts. They are invisible and work in myriad different ways with all the subtleties and nuances embedded in it.

People with similar backgrounds, expertise, and job positions gather to share and grow together. No body forces them to form a group there by forming social capital. They are a high concoction of talent, expertise, and influential information brokers.

Workplaces need to recognize the importance of such informal networks, which can develop the ability to innovate and adapt.

It is a known fact that such informal networks in workplaces often compete with formal structures and work processes. Established HR practices, culture, and leadership styles hardly recognize the existence of such networks. Yet, we know to the core that people often depend upon informal relationships to find information they want.  Social science researchers across the world have consistently pointed out that ‘who we know, has a great say and impact on what and how much we know’.

The understanding is that if we put an organizational chart, the lines and boxes hardly represent the relationships that exist within the workplaces. Informal relationships exist beyond those lines and boxes for carrying out work and are always growing and often not immediately seen.

Informal relationships are compounded when organizations become more flat (typically, the direct reports span for manager increases or when there is widespread retrenchment) and when there is increased virtual remote working across the globe. However, the managers seem to have a good understanding of the immediate social links their direct reports have but they are largely unaware of the social links and connections, employees have across the gamut of the organization.

Now having said that, social network analysis can play a significant role in mapping and assessing key relationships among group members in informal networks as well as making productive interventions in the best interest of the organization as a whole.

There were simultaneous studies on Social network analysis from researchers across different disciplines. From the field of Social Psychology was JL Moreno who was credited with creating the first social network after mapping the city of New York. He created the first Sociogram (A network diagram, depicting relationships among group members).

Cultural anthropology, another discipline developed independent studies on informal networks. Then there was ‘graph theory’ from the field of Mathematics, which provided the foundations for the analytical techniques in social network analysis.

Over the years, all these research studies culminated today to study the effects of informal networks in modern work places through social network analysis.

All this valuable research into social network analysis provided significant inputs for investigating and understanding the conditions necessary for the rise of informal networks in organizations.

Have you read ?

1. What small world village clusters can teach us on social networks
2.  The human brain helps us make decisions in everyday life social networks
3.  How social networks can add value to innovation in workplaces

Informal networks in organizations are quite common among people who are from similar background and job profile. Firstly, it emphasizes the fact that informal networks thrive from a cognitive standpoint where in employees with similar abilities and job positions communicate more.

Secondly, from a structural standpoint, the organizations design and structure has an impact on the influence and the density of the connections within informal networks. There is every likelihood that informal networks are less dense in formal structures.

Lastly, from a relational standpoint, it emphasizes that trust; motivation and reciprocity are the other important factors, which influence informal networks within workplaces.

Some insight into social network analysis for informal networks

An interesting point which I would like to make is that so far social network analysis has been viewed from a researcher’s point of view and the outcomes of such research and the benefits where never been within the reach of practitioners belonging to the industry. The outcomes and the insight derived out of such analysis need to be accessible for people in workplaces. Moreover, addressing challenges in context can help working relationships. The current conditions and challenges of working relationships in modern workplaces need to assessed and understood in the first place.

Such contextualized approach can give practitioners insight into ‘what is working and not working’ when analyzing the patterns of relationships and make changes and corrections accordingly.

For example, relocating people who are central to the informal networks with respect to decision-making and information control, to other parts of the network can have a positive effect to the group as a whole. This can boost the morale of the employees as well.

Similarly, people who are in the far reaches of the informal networks can be re-assigned so that their expertise and talent does not go underutilized. Their expertise can be leveraged by bringing them closer to the network members.

Finally, analyzing the gaps at the junctures of two independent informal networks can help in understanding what is missing or not working. By making suitable interventions and infusing new talent in those gaps or through introduction of knowledge brokers, disparate groups can be integrated. Such integration can facilitate free flow of information, expertise and know how across the groups in workplaces.




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Ramkumar Yaragarla

I am 43 years old. Founder, Loving dad and Husband. Worked as an IT Business analyst and program manager in several Fortune 100 companies.Alumnus at the University of Warwick, UK. I love the WWW and write on Social aspects of information, Social collaboration, Digital Sociology, Digital Humanities and Work life balance. I enjoy playing on the beach with my 9 year old daughter. I am open to your suggestions and comments.
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