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IBM Cambridge Research Center

  Project: Social Networking Analysis

Primary Researchers: Kate Ehrlich
Contact: katee@us.ibm.com

A Collaborative User Experience Project:

Collaboration is the way work gets done in organizations. But the context of that work is changing. Where we work, who we work with and how the work is organized is evolving from a model where work was physically located, predictable, stable and hierarchical, to a model where work is unpredictable, takes place in many settings, with people we have often never met, mediated by technology, and managed by influence rather than top down directive. In this kind of networked organization, we need to find and interact with the people who matter to our work. But the full range of people we work with is often invisible to managers and individuals alike. And there are often barriers of geographic separation, business unit, or differences in seniority, that inhibit the smooth flow of communication and collaboration.

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a set of methods and statistics that reveals the hidden connections that are important for sharing information, decision-making, and innovation. The outcome of an SNA helps us to see where collaboration is breaking down, where talent and expertise could be better leveraged, where decisions are getting bogged down or where opportunities for innovation are being lost. The data give us the picture we need to create a set of remedial actions for individuals and leaders to improve productivity, efficiency and innovation.

Data for an SNA is typically collected by surveying an identified group of people, asking them to answer questions about the relationship with every other person in the group. A typical question might be: "Please indicate how often you communicate with this person" where the answers are Very Infrequently, Infrequently, Frequently, Very Frequently The surveys typically take a respondent only 20-30 minutes to complete. The data from these surveys are used to generate diagrams that make the individuals and the connections between them visible. A complete SNA from determining the range of questions to final report takes 6-8 weeks of elapsed time.

For example, we conducted an SNA on our student intern population to improve the process of on-boarding - bringing new hires up to speed - and see if we could identify factors that influenced retention. These interns were expected to produce an original project under the direction of a mentor in several months, so it was important for them to make the connections in a few weeks that might take full-time employees months. We used a combination of surveys and follow-up interviews to find out how the interns used other people as sources of information. The study looked at the relationships among the interns as well as between the interns and the rest of the group. Analysis revealed that the interns sought information much less frequently than the full-time employees. Initially they used online sources to find information, but as they got to know people, they went to others in the group. The SNA also showed that the interns' impressions about IBM as a good place to work depended greatly on whether they knew who to ask for information and if their questions were answered in a timely fashion.

We have conducted over half a dozen SNAs with a variety of teams, some client-facing, some groups bound together by expertise. Taken together there is a consistent picture showing that people communicate and collaborate much more with others in the same geography than different geography and with people in the same business unit or functional group than another group.