There are many shapes and sizes of organization network analysis.
Irrespective of the method you use the idea behind all of them is the same – to map out the social connections in an organization in order to understand the flow of ideas, knowledge etc.
It is both a noble and valuable endeavour.

The need 

Since my first book, over 10 years ago, I have been working with the idea that all organizations are in fact two organizations.
The "formal" organization (made up of structures, processes, roles etc.) and what I have come to call the "real" organization (made up of human beings trying to make sense of the world together through social networks).
Whilst much is being done to study the former, little, as yet, is in place to understand the latter. With organization network analysis developing as a field of study, this may well change and for all of us trying to get better results this is good news indeed.
Yet, with the development of organization network analysis, a lot of counter-productive practices are emerging. To understand why network analysis needs to be handled with care we need to understand how networks differ from formal structures.

The problem

The formal organization succeeds by working with three variables – Roles, Rules and Economic Incentives. The narrative is simple, fulfill your role by following the rules and you will get paid. It’s an efficient and straightforward narrative.
The company on the other hand relies on three different variables with more complex narrative structures – Individuals, Reciprocity, Social and Moral Obligation. Here, a person, driven by their sense of self builds relationships through give and take in order to further the cause of the community they associate with.
The problem for all of us trying to marry the efficiency of the formal organization with the energy of the real one is that these variables do not fit well with each other.
Whilst we can sacrifice our sense of self in order to fit a role or follow rules to the detriment of reciprocity the most problematic variables for any student of networks are economic incentives and social/moral obligations.
Countless studies have demonstrated that appeals to economic incentives actively destroy social and moral obligations. Whilst that does not, in and of itself, lessen the need for mapping organizational networks, it should however warn us about what not to do with our maps.
Too often, I have seen organizational network maps being formalized. The rational is that, having studied your map, you can optimize it, make it more efficient and effective. Again nothing wrong with the idea but here is where the approach goes wrong. The most common used tools of optimization, in any organization, are, you’ve guessed it Roles, Rules and Economic Incentives. Hubs and spokes become roles we need to encourage by incentivizing key players along the network.
In a nutshell, we formalize the company so it closely resembles the organization thereby destroying any sense of obligation and the network we aimed to optimize with it.
The problem is not the mapping endeavor but how we plan the journey once we have the map in hand.
The problem is not the development of organizational network mapping but the lack of focus on developing/using new tools to follow it.
The problem is not our desire to optimize the networks we inhabit but our focus on formalizing rather than realizing.

  • Really interesting post Emmanuel and sorry to take so long to respond on it but I was hoping others might do so first (a gentle hint to other community members if you're reading this!). I think your perspective is becoming an increasingly common way of seeing organisations, though of course there are others, eg Niels Pflaeging’s suggestions on formal, informal and value creating.

    And my own ways of thinking or communicating about this too, as I tend to talk about formal as anything which we care about and therefore support and resource, whilst recognising that most of the organisation works outside of this zone, ie informally. Clearly however formal social groupings need to be influenced, not managed. Eg I’d see community management as operating on the social / moral or 'real' side of the organisation but I think it’s too important not to be seen as a formal part of the organisation. As a community manager, I’d be interested in ’s perspectives on this.

    However I know I take this further than most eg my suggestions around ‘communities of performance’ definitely provoke a strong negative reaction in some people because they’re seen to be an attempt to formalise something which should be left informal. I guess time will tell as we work through the possible opportunities around this - I certainly see it as still very much early days.

    I also agree that the use of ONA, and all the other activities which can be used to develop social capital can be subverted and result in the opposite of what has been intended - a really important health warning to us all!

    Thanks for joining Emmanuel, and for posting, and hope to hear more of your insights in the future.