The missing elements: social mapping and social analysis

One of the great initiatives going on in the internal communications world at the moment is Chuck Gose’s effort to develop an “internal communications periodic table” consisting of the various “elements” essential to internal communication.

The “elements,” submitted by practitioners around the world, cover the usual tactics, scenarios and tools. But, reflective of the current state of the profession, the list didn’t directly reference selective communication and targeted engagement. Two elements that would take this “table” to a new level would be Social Mapping and Social Analysis.

Social analysis and social mapping, two related techniques, focus on identifying the most influential individuals in a given enterprise or community. Social analysis does so mainly by assembling and optimizing lists, and identifying key communities or informal “tribes.”  Social mapping goes further by visually identifying the web of specific relationships and illustrating which individuals are the key points of connection with various sub-communities, be they corporate functions, tribes or geographic clusters.

The theory behind social analysis dates back to the early days of the democratic political process, having been spelled out coherently for the first time with Abraham Lincoln’s rules for political campaigns in the 1840s. The discipline of Organizational Network Analysis, which developed the first integrated social maps, dates back at least to the 1970s.

But it has only been recently that these techniques have been readily available to organizational communicators. Social mapping requires sophisticated computing power and executional expertise, and Innovisor, the market leader, has only recently become fully focused on spreading large scale organizational mapping beyond its home region of Scandinavia, with recent implementations with Caterpillar and several other US organizations combining with successes at Maersk and LEGO. In each of these cases, Innovisor’s approach allowed the host organizations to identify the three to five percent of key employees who sustain and drive 80% of an organization’s strategic conversations.

Social analysis has gained a degree of traction as a result of Leandro Herrero’s work with the Viral Change approach, which combines social analysis with Leandro’s mix of behavioral change methodologies and interventions, backed with his relentless daily public advocacy for the approach. Indeed, while I’ve written my own book on social analysis, I actually recommend Leandro’s Homo Imitans to anyone who wants to start putting social analysis into action in their companies or communities.  While I focus on how to identify key informal leaders and subgroups and how to mobilize them, Leandro provides some excellent insights about how to influence and channel their participation meaningfully and credibly.

Still, social analysis and social mapping face considerable, if surmountable, obstacles to widespread adoption. The current focus on all-employee engagement discourages finely targeted interventions and the selection of a privileged group of employees below the top of the formal hierarchy (influencer maps tend to show an integrated combination of hierarchical and informal leadership driving most strategic conversations in target organizations).

Conservative interpretation of data privacy regulations as they apply to employees may inhibit the proper analysis or retention of influencer data.  While basic social analysis can be done more or less for free with one or both of the aforementioned books under one’s belt, social mapping costs time and money and requires organizational effort.  And, most interestingly, in suggesting to leaders that their view of the flow of organizational influence might not align with documented reality, social mapping in particular requires an expanded level of executive open-mindedness in addition to a willingness to invest in the approach.

But the advantages of both approaches certainly warrant their inclusion on an internal comms elements list, even if they may currently find themselves at the “rare earth” end of today’s standard IC practices.

When it comes to organizational transformation, mergers and acquisitions, resource optimization and even leadership development, understanding where informal, credible leaders can be found and how they are connected opens doors that are unavailable through any other tactic or intervention on the market today. As they become better understood and more widely used, they will move up the “periodic table.” And they will definitely and inevitably change the terms.

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