Mapping of networks

Recently Joitske Hulsebosch, Josien Kapma, Niels Schuddeboom and I engaged in a discussion about the use of Social Network Analysis (SNA) and Organisational Network Analysis (ONA). It is clear that you can to produce an array of very nice maps of networks relations with SNA. But how useful is drawing maps of networks? When is it worth the time investment? We agreed to continue exploring these topic together over the next weeks. Josien and Joitske are following an online course by Patti Anklam on Network Analysis, from which they will gain more insight to feed our discussion.

The networks that interest me are networks in the field of development cooperation and usually include organisations both in the North and the South. For several reasons many of these networks find it hard to actively involve their network members. Factors like geographical distance, cost of face-to-face meetings, and limited access to internet facilities can be at play. But another limitation is that often development networks are constructed to achieve fixed, obligatory programme objectives, and I believe this does not stimulate informal and more personal interaction.

In the networks I work with attention is given to its governance, and usually less to how people interact and establish connections (the networking). Making the connections visible is precisely the focus of Social Network Analysis, and Organisational Network Analysis (ONA) applies this approach in organisations and recognises the importance of relations between employees. Mapping the flow of information more often than not has little to do with the organogram, and ONA is in fact a representation of the social tissue of an organisation. I find this interesting; because when you focus on the individual relations there is no difference between how you approach organisations or networks. The difference is, of course, that if you remove the personal ‘networking’ from an organisation, you would still have the formal structure. If you do so in a network, you have an empty shell.

In this setting I think Social Network Analysis tools can be useful to show the possibilities for more active networking.

I see a value of mapping the network in:

  1. Recognising roles in the network. I wrote about important roles in my blog in January. Mapping the network helps identify roles like connectors and coordinators, but also gatekeepers or peripheral specialists. However, I would not rely on the map only to identify these and other roles, and look for more information on how these roles play out through interviews. But the maps do help to see where to look for the key people in a network.
  2. Monitoring the connectivity. Since networks are changing continuously I see a useful application of mapping relationships for monitoring purposes. It does require regular updates of the map. If the network has much online activity there are tools available that could monitor the connections. But for other types of interaction you will need survey data. I can easily see this work as long as you use light and easy formats, for instance a short list of standard questions using survey monkey.

From our discussion two questions came to my mind that I would like to explore further:

  1. How to use maps effectively as a reflection tool for the members of the network? My assumption is that visualising the network will stimulate people to reflect on their own role and motivate them to become more active. But that might also be true for other data that you used to discuss the functioning of the network. I have positive experiences with time-lines for instance. Does the visualisation in maps appeal more strongly?
  2. Can network mapping show which people influence the course of the network? Whose influence is tipping the opinions in a network setting? In Network Analysis the ‘eigenvector’ is a measure for those who have most ties to well connected people (a high ‘eigenvector’ does not identify the well-connected themselves, but those who can influence them). But how do you influence others? As the figure below (from Michael Wu’s interesting blog) shows ‘influencers’ are not just the persons who communicate a lot, but need to be seen as credible persons. So when mapping the ties of a network, I am also interested in how people value the quality of the information, and what they do with it. A key question is for me: whose information do people act upon?



SNA is an interesting field that I like to explore more. Our discussion continues on how we can use it in practice. If you have suggestions to help me advance in the questions above, please share them with me. Any thoughts on this topic are welcome.



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