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How to introduce Social Network Analysis

I am a self-made woman when it comes to Social Network Analysis: just picked it up along the way and learned from doing. Joitske Hulsebosch (twitter @Joitske) however recently finished a short SNA course with Patti Anklam (twitter @panklam). Joitske gave me some food for thought about the way I might introduce SNA to those who are new to it.


The group I recently worked with had all sorts of surprising expectations about SNA which could not be met (e.g. see how information was actually flowing). This is a sign of poor client intake on my part. So what can I learn from this?


Social Network Analysis is about making sense of patterns

First of all, SNA generates questions, not answers. It produces visuals of how people/organizations are connected and work together. Seeing these connections can generate reflection, for instance “does this pattern explain why some in the network are informed and others do not get information?” Here are typical questions that SNA can generate:

  • Are we networked enough to succeed? Where might new connections be helpful?
  • Are we overlooking people/organizations that are widely connected, that seem to move knowledge and information around in the network? Are they aware of the role they perform informally?
  • Who is sought after for expertise? Are they easy to find? What if they leave?
  • Who is not connected widely, and is that a problem?
  • If we want to lead a change agenda, who should we partner with to generate broad support and interest?

Monitoring and evaluation of network support efforts

Social Network Analysis can be used to evaluate change in a network over time. The illustration shows a network one year ago and the same network now, a year later. We can see a tighter network, with the 9 respondents apparently working more closely together. This doesn’t tell you how that change has happened. People involved in the network need to reflect and discuss what may have contributed to the change. A year ago, this picture might have been used to discuss strategies with a network facilitator to get more connected. Now the result of those strategies can be checked and discussed.


Facilitation is critical

This brings me to a very important point about facilitating Social Network Analysis with organizations or networks. I can work with the social network analysis software, and I can distill interesting patterns. However, I am not part of the network and therefore I cannot come to any conclusions about it. I can only share the patters I discover, and explain what they seem to suggest, but then the floor is to the network members.


For facilitation to work, it needs to be clear from the start why we are doing Social Network Analysis. Next time, I will be in a better position to help a client define this purpose.

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Comment by Joitske Hulsebosch on May 31, 2013 at 17:28

What would be the additional questions you would ask people from the network to understand the difference between the 2 pictures?

Comment by Lucia Nass on June 9, 2013 at 9:18

Some questions I would ask:

How has TKP managed to become more central to the network? What may have helped?

What can you observe about the organisations on the fringe of the network? Some have become more connected, others haven't. Is this is satisfactory situation?

PK is the informal network facilitator. What if PK were to leave now?

Comment by Joitske Hulsebosch on June 10, 2013 at 11:36

Thanks for your questions! I notice it is not about the content of what people learned or what innovations occurred. This is what I still wonder about. There is a clear assumption that 'the more networked the better' in the whole SNA world :).

Comment by Lucia Nass on June 10, 2013 at 13:32

Interesting observation. Regarding content, e.g. what flows in the network, we have to be very careful I think. Unless we ask specific content related questions during the analysis, we can't know what that the links between actors are about. The actors themselves can tell you though.

Organisations on the fringe, so those who are not so much connected in the network, tend to be a source of innovation, or new information. Obviously, they are connected to others, just that we do not know about it. Our network analysis has to stop somewhere. This is why I would ask if the network members are OK with the members on the fringe. In this case there was a women's organisation on the fringe, which might not be satisfactory. There was also an international organisation on the fringe, which was fine.

I agree that not everyone needs to be connected to everyone else! In fact it seems that networks which are too closely interconnected tend not to be very open to innovation. This explained why in one remote Andes community latrine introduction proved very difficult: the community was very closely knit. In another remote Andes community, which was not so closely knitted and had more relationships with the outside, latrine introduction was successful. (case from Cristakis and Fowler 2011 covered in an earlier blog post)

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