How Social Network Analysis (SNA) Combats the Tyranny of Top Down

We are prompted to write this post by Gary Hamel’s excellent exposition on “Leaders Everywhere”, together with some recent SNA work we have been conducting that speaks directly to the thesis around developing leaders at all levels of the organisation. This also builds on our previous paper ‘Tyranny of Top Down‘.

Much of the early thinking around inverted hierarchies can be attributed to J.B. Quinn and his writings on the “Intelligent Enterprise”. Prompted by the slow demise of the manufacturing led industrial sector and the burgeoning growth in the services sector, Quinn proposed the radical idea of inverting the hierarchy and placing customer facing staff at the top level, supported, rather than being directed by their respective line managers and executive staff. 
Inverted HierarchyAs Hamel eloquently puts it, many organisations that are locked into industrial age business models are now trying to become more client focused, adaptive, and have accountability for results at all levels. We think the first step in this journey is to understand what the current status quo is. We are using a recent case study of ours related to an organisation that has a long industrial heritage. Global competition and the drive to radically reduce their cost of doing business are forcing them to consider the sorts of interventions that Hamel is suggesting. But before launching into such interventions we suggest that it is always a better practice to ‘take the x-ray’, to understand the detail of the current status quo. In large organisations it is rare that all parts of the company behave in precisely the same way. Using the insight of the x-ray, one can provide the treatments to areas of most need, while highlighting those areas already operating in accordance with the desired state.

Using the facility of Social Network Analysis (SNA), we can take that x-ray to see what the relationship network in an organisation really looks like:

Full X-Ray

This social network map shows how the staff of this organisation are connected by ‘dependency’ i.e. staff were surveyed and asked who they were most critically dependent on in doing their job well. The red links show where this dependency is reciprocated. We like to think of these as ‘trusted links’, where knowledge and information is likely to flow more easily. The colours represent the different formal business units. We can already see some ‘siloing’ around business units, something that is common in top down hierarchies. The circles are people. The size of the circle is related to how many dependency nominations that person has received. A large circle suggests that this person is important in the organisation. In very hierarchical organisations, we would expect to see the larger circles identified with the line management roles.

Now because this organisation was interested in who the ‘natural leaders’ are in the organisation i.e. those staff who attract dependency nominations, not based on any formal role authority, but simply through the value they provide to their peer worker. Through the ‘magic’ of SNA we can explore this scenario by simply removing all the line managers from the map:

No Managers X-Ray

Now the circles are re-scaled to reflect just those nominations that are received from their peer shop floor workers. It is evident from this map that the line managers are playing a linking role between business units as the silos are even more defined; something that we would expect from a top down hierarchy. But it is also evident, especially within the red and yellow business units, that work can still proceed without a strong reliance on their line managers. This is encouraging as perhaps some of the larger circles in this line-manager-less world could be the natural leaders that the organisation is looking for and who’s value adding behaviours they could promote and replicate.

Lets now look at some of Hamel’s recommendations and how we can use SNA to achieve them:

Hamel Recommendation

How SNA can be used to help

Develop smaller, more accountable teams.

We can see from our maps where the natural teams lie and therefore these can be leveraged immediately.

Attach compensation to value provided.

The first step here is to check the compensation for the higher peer nominated staff in the ‘no managers’ map. We should then visibly compensate those voted as adding most value.

Open up the strategic conversations and information flows from the top down.

The SNA map identifies where the information flows may be constrained and who may or may not be playing important information brokering roles. SNA results can be used to maximise efficient information diffusion.

Collect peer to peer feedback

This is what SNA fundamentally does.

Provide fast feedback to facilitate adaptability at the customer interface.

With the help of enterprise social networking tools, it will be possible to provide peer feedback in real time, through mapping conversational patterns on social platforms. See Social Analytics 2.0 – Its Time

Train and equip leaders with skills, information and contacts to be fully accountable for the work they are performing.

SNA maps work to the granularity of the individual. Using SNA tools we can drill down to an individual leader to assess what their current network looks like and then assess what can be done to improve this. We have blogged previously about this in Is your Personal Social Capital Helping or Hindering Your Leadership Aspirations? 

To conclude this article on a leadership development note, here is a quick quiz:

Here are three personal network maps for leaders drawn from an overall SNA X-ray. Pick out who you think looks  like a Co-ordinator/general manager; a domain specialist; or a potential innovation broker? (Note that the colours represent different business units).

Leader ProfilesKeep watching this space for announcements about our new ‘Personal Networking Diagnostic’ for emerging leaders.

This entry was posted in Case Study, Social Network Analysis by Laurence Lock Lee. Bookmark the permalink.

About Laurence Lock Lee

I am a co-founder of Optimice Pty Ltd, the developer of Community Mapper, ONA Surveys, Visual Markets and Stakeholder Engagement. I am also the Chief Scientist and co-founder of Tech startup Swoop Analytics. My passion is networks; building them, participating in them, analysing them, improving them, writing about them. My work experience has largely been with corporate networks. However, I am excited about the prospect of working with community and network builders from all walks of life, be they NGOs, charities, professional societies, industry peak bodies, social enterprises etc... It doesn't take long to appreciate that 'building community' is the new 21st century mission statement.