Thursday, June 16, 2005

"Organizational X-Ray"--an SNA metaphor that is all too apt?

Last week I visited the MIT office of David Hartzband, where we had a fascinating conversation around all sort of topics related to technology and organizations. Along the way David introduced me to CP Snow's "The Two Cultures" and the super pre-categorizing Internet search tool Clusty (not as visually slick as Grokker but more powerful). David has been CTO of several major technology firms and I found his awareness of the technical landscape really breathtaking.

At the end of our meeting, David challenged me with his impression that he sees SNA as a fascinating tool without clear business value. Moreover, amongst David's wide circle of contacts, SNA has polarized the ranks. Half of them love SNA and the other half are bitter about money wasted on opportunistic SNA consultants.

I told David how his perspective reminds me of Steve Borgatti, who months ago explained to me his concern that SNA will get burned by excessive buzz, as legions of inexpert entrepreneurs grab some quick SNA cash and leave the marketplace forever resentful that they ever heard of social networks.

We often use the "organizational x-ray" metaphor in this business, and I think now is a good time to remind ourselves that it took us decades to figure out what x-rays are good for, and not good for. Did anyone out there ever have their shoe size measured by a department store x-ray machine? These were common in the 40s and 50s before their hazards were well understood and they were outlawed. Word didn't get everywhere, however, and the last operational shoe-size x-ray wasn't mothballed until 1981.

Of course, the flip side of this is where would modern medicine be without x-rays? Many of us owe our lives (or limbs or teeth) to timely insights provided by responsible use of this remarkable technology.

So be wary of whiz-bang SNA shoe-size machines and let's focus on connecting this technology to places where it really helps.


Valdis said...

Yeah, Steve is right on! I said something similar when interviewed a few years ago...

"But even boosters fear that an incautious provider could hurt the field with a big breach of privacy. Or maybe a company will tell its workers that some are being let go because the new software has determined they are less productive than they seem.

"So far there hasn't been the Chernobyl of social network analysis," said Krebs. "But believe me, it's out there."

Here is an article in the current issue of CIO about social network analysis in corporations.

Anonymous said...

well, steve may be right one, but David is another story. If anyone with a real technological insight bothered to look deeper, you'd see that Vivisimo's technology is far from 'powerful' fact its a commodity that is nowhere near as useful to me as Grokker and even Kartoo. The game of this basic document clustering is old, as is the field of search. I am far more interested in new research projects like Grokker, which is on to something alright, with a new form clustering engine extremely cutting edge, going deep into the web.

Kate Ehrlich said...

I appreciated Bruce's caution about a possible backlash to the buzz surrounding SNA. The use of SNA methods in consulting is still relatively new and hence unproven and untested. But the buzz and excitement has been growing. So it was good to be reminded that some things that appear to be a good idea, turn out to be misguided and perhaps even dangerous, as in Bruce's delightful story of the department store x-ray machine.

Like Bruce, I have often talked about SNA as providing an "x-ray" of the organization. It is an apt metaphor to convey the notion that SNA reveals the hidden informal pathways in the organization. But I have also used the metaphor of "organizational usability" to convey the notion that SNA reveals where human-human interaction isn't working. Just as web designers might use the results of usability tests to adjust the information architecture of their website so that the intended users can complete their tasks, so organizational designers can take the results of an SNA to make adjustments to the incentives, roles and leadership in an organization. Wikipedia defines usability testing thusly, "During usability testing, the aim is to observe people using the product in as realistic a situation as possible, to discover errors and areas of improvement."

Usability testing, based on well established research methods in experimental and cognitive psychology, emerged in the mid 1980s in response to the need for computer systems that could be used by the average person. At first usability testing was mostly done by a few brave souls toiling away in product development groups. Over the years usability testing, as a practice, has grown in importance and influence. There are now hundreds of books for the novice and experienced practitioner, conferences and seminars, societies devoted to furthering the practice and long lists of consultants. A search on brings up over 1000 jobs that have "usability" in the title.

SNA as a practice is still getting defined. When we look back to this time, lets hope SNA looks more like usability than department store x-ray machines.

Valdis said...

Kate, did you realize that IBM started doing SNA as part of internal AND external consulting assignments in 1993? The IBM Consulting Group [now Global Services] was the first major consulting firm to do SNA on a regular basis [by a small band (~40) of consultants].

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