Table of Contents
Drew Mackie & David Wilcox
The Internet provides the potential for extending and enhancing our personal and professional networks - offering scope for reducing social isolation, building community relationships, and supporting cooperation between and within organisations.
However, to realise the potential of networks we need to understand more about their nature, how to analyse, map and build them - whether online or not.
Drew Mackie - a networks specialist - has drafted this guide with David Wilcox. We are exploring Living Well in the Digital Age with the Digital Inclusion Group of Age Action Alliance.
- Our exploration into Living Well in the Digital Age
This paper is licensed Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA so you may remix, tweak, and build upon this work non-commercially, as long as you credit us and license any new creations under the identical terms.
- Full paper below, and online at netspaper
Sections also available separately:
Section 1 - The Network Perspective
What are networks - and why are they increasingly important?
We are all familiar with networks. They are evident in the pattern of roads on a map; the power lines connecting the sockets in our homes to the national grid; the patterns of who knows who in any community. And we may realise that networks are becoming more important because the Internet allows almost anyone or anything to be connected. From all these examples it is clear that some places and people are better connected than others, and that networks are links and hotspots of various types.
If you are in a rich network it is fairly easy to connect with apparently distant people through a few links. You make use of relationships if you are well-connected - “who you know matters as much as what you know” because you can always find someone to ask or to help. You can build on the relationships, become more widely trusted, make things happen more easily.
But…if Facebook, Google and other Internet giants can encourage you to make more connections and share your content, they will know your interests and target you with adverts in exchange for free use of their networks. If security services can see where your connections are they may not need to know what you are saying - they can see whether your associations look threatening just by looking at your networks.
Online networks change the way business is done. They enable connections within organisations between workers that can bypass management, wherever they are in the world; they can enable people to set up businesses even though they never meet; and they enable businesses to cut out middle-level suppliers, as Amazon has done to a lot of retailers. In this set of notes we’ll provide some guidance on how to:
- Understand networks in more detail
- Describe these networks through mapping
- Use network mapping to show how to make more of our assets, particularly in local communities
- Recognise different types of network enthusiasts
- See where influence may lie in networks - and why some people are resistant to developing networks
- Use software for network mapping and analysis
The networks that you will find illustrated in this document have been prepared in the course of Drew Mackie Associates projects over the last 8 years. These projects cover:
- Consultation and Engagement
- Public, private and community community organisations
- Linked ideas and projects
- Physical planning
The principle of network analysis is really very simple. If you can identify a number of things and how they connect together, then you have a network. The things themselves are represented by blobs known as nodes. The links that connect them are shown by lines. Computer analysis can show how central nodes are to the operation of the network.
In the first part of this document, we discuss general network ideas. The second part shows a number of examples taken from our work over the last 8 years and covers network of people, places and ideas.
Networkistas - four strands of network interest
The sheet below shows the sort of people who have an interest in networks. This was prepared for the informal “Networkista” group with members from all over the UK. Meetings have been held in Manchester and London to discuss the value of the network approach.
Why Analyse Networks?
Drawing a network may help to understand the the various patterns of relationship but as the size of network increases it becomes more difficult to see these patterns and some more subtle dimensions come into play. For instance the node with the most connections may not be the most central to the network. It may be the centre of an intense sub-network which is on the periphery of the network as a whole. On the other hand a node with few connections may be the crucial bridge between parts of the network. Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a computer based method of measuring various forms of centrality (see Section 2 for a more detailed exploration of SNA)
People that might find this analysis useful are:
- Indicates who may be best to influence or gain support from
- Shows the range of contacts that you should ensure have been talked to to gain maximum exposure
- Traces the flows of influence through the network
- Shows patterns of interest and activity
- Indicates the distribution and type of assets
- Plots the flows between asset holders
- Explores shared stories
- Shows what clusters of organisations work best together and who should be brought together for the project or programme
- Plots changes in Social Capital (network density) over the life of a programme
- Records improvements in communication and asset sharing
- Indicates the role of programme organisers in facilitating change
- Shows the distribution of available skills and resources
- Gives an indication of delivery efficiency
- Indicates the willingness to share assets and information across organisations
Possible blocks to using SNA
Social Network Analysis is good tool for telling us where the key parts of a network are and how they might exert influence. In recent work, we have been comparing the position of an organisation or department with the assets it controls. This can often show up a mismatch where:
- The department or organisation is very central to the network but has few skills and resources. This means that, although it has the potential to influence the network and/or control flows of information, it does not have the resources to exercise such control effectively.
- The department or organisation is peripheral to the network but is well stocked with skills and resources. Thus it has the means to act effectively but doesn't command the position to do so.
We are constantly amazed at how often these anomalies occur. In one case, the body responsible for the implementation of a major regeneration project was recognised as being skilled, but had virtually no resources. In another, a well resourced department with highly skilled staff was carrying out mundane duties at the edge of the network.
So the point is that network analysis can identify these mismatches and suggest ways in which they can be resolved. And this could be really useful in gauging the present and potential effectiveness of a network. So why is it often difficult to persuade prospective clients to undertake this sort of analysis? The sequence often unfolds like this:
We are approached by a middle manager who feels that SNA could benefit their complex organisation - or we are already working on a job where SNA appears to be useful.
> After discussion we are asked to put a proposition to senior management. This contains examples of networks whose performance is impeded by under-resourced but central departments.
> Senior management don't like it at all. And who can blame them. The analysis will likely show that they don't have the influence they want (or think they have) or the resources they need. It's a threat.
> Because the process is risky, even a committed client can be wary of the work and can be sceptical that the simple one page questionnaire that we use can really suffice. This has been especially problematic in work with health organisations whose culture is evidence based. Although there are sections of the NHS's "Evidence" website devoted to SNA, the method is not well known in_ _health circles. Advocates of SNA's structural rather than numerical approach can be vulnerable to criticism from colleagues and have to feel confident in justifying the method and it's routines. This can lead to over complication in data acquisition so that the method doesn't appear simplistic.
We were recently asked to map the network of attendees at a national conference. The organisers were enthusiastic. However, senior staff realised that we were about to explore and encourage network links between participants when their own website was incapable of facilitating these. The invitation was withdrawn.
Often a network analysis will indicate that the real structure of an organisation or group of organisations is nothing like the ideal structure perceived by senior management. Cross connections between departments and informal links between individuals create a complex pattern of relationships which are essential to the way the network works. These grow and reconfigure constantly as the activities of the network change and any analysis is a snapshot of the state of the network at any one time.
But senior managers want stability and clarity. Often they will see the mapping of the real structure as a threat because it may indicate:
- They are not in the strongest position to control the network
- Lines of communication bypass them
- Skills and resources are not effectively deployed
Now each of the above would be useful knowledge to a creative manager. A knowledge of SNA would be another tool in the managers box. Yet often they feel that it will invite criticism of their role or capabilities. When we are asked to map a network it is often because the members realise that there is something wrong with the present structure. When we explain what the analysis will do it often touches on the sensitivities of key individuals and often they are not prepared to face this. Almost all the network mapping we have done has been part of a larger task where we have chosen to use this method.
Another factor is that very few senior managers know about SNA. This is not a tool that they have faith in. Indeed this is not a tool in general use in the UK although widely used in the US and Australia.