Knowing your audience

Social Network Analysis: A basic introduction

By 1 May 2012

What is social network analysis?

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a tool for mapping networks and identifying the pattern of a group or organisation’s knowledge flow. SNA’s defining point is therefore based on the formation of relationships.

SNA can be used by a group as a process of “learning and understanding the (formal and informal) networks that operate in a given field” (Hovland, 2007). This extensive form of mind-mapping allows the group not only to identify networks, but also to highlight the patterns of information exchange within the network. Although networks are often created to pass information from one individual to another, and over time the content is also shared with a wider network, it also gradually grows to take in other outside contact and networks. An SNA focuses on the structure of the relationships that weave between people and organisations within a networks.

Within every network there are starting points and branching points. Each individual who forms a network, whether it us within a team or an organisation, will exchange information with others who share the same or common beliefs and ideas. They will be likely to share information with friends, partners and relatives if they find the information interesting. Maximising the appeal of this information can increase traffic to the sites or pages of the distributing organisation.

What is a ‘social network’?

A social network is made up of what are called ‘nodes’ (points) and ‘links’, all of which are then identifiable categories of analysis. These include people, groups, and organisations  – which are usually the main priority and concern for any type of social examination. Links in this type of analysis which focus on the ‘collective’ include social contacts and exchangeable information.  It has been argued for some time that organisations are embedded in networks of larger social processes, which they influence and which also influence them (Hovland, p.10).

How do we use SNA?

“A range of methods can be used, including ethnography, participant observation, key informant interviews, semi-structured interviews, ‘snowball’ sampling, focus groups, and content analysis of the media” (Schelhas and Cerveny, 2002, Social Network Analysis for Collaboration in Natural Resource Management).

“The aim is to construct a ‘map’ of the linkages that exist between people in this field” (Hovland, 2005).

“Social network analysis is the mapping and measuring of relationships and flows between people, groups, organisations, computers or other information/knowledge processing entities” (Valdis Krebs, 2002). Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a method for visualizing our people and connection power, leading us to identify how we can best interact to share knowledge.

Why is it useful for project planning?

By identifying the ‘nodes of concern’ (Hovland, 2005), it is easy to identify the best ways to share knowledge within social network sites by mapping out who will be most affected.

Carrying out an SNA is quite a lot like detective work, and it can give you a lot of information on the overall outcome of the project, i.e. who the main recipients will be. Using software to map out networks can broaden the awareness of the entire network being analysed. Knowing who the main shareholders are can help with planning interviews and answering questions about the planned project.

The key stages of this process have been outlined in the  Knowledge Sharing Tools and Methods Kit  and can be seen below:

  • Identifying the network of people to be analysed (e.g. team, workgroup, department).
  • Gathering background information – interviewing managers and key staff to understand the specific needs and problems.
  • Clarifying objectives, defining the scope of the analysis, and agreeing on the level of reporting required.
  • Formulating hypotheses and questions.
  • Developing the survey methodology and designing the questionnaire.
  • Surveying the individuals in the network to identify the relationships and knowledge flows between them.
  • Use a software mapping tool to visually map out the network.
  • Reviewing the map and the problems and opportunities highlighted using interviews and/or workshops.
  • Designing and implementing actions to bring about desired changes.
  • Mapping the network again after a suitable period of time.