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Why network analysis is the next big thing

Business and government operates increasingly in:

  • A highly information-based economy and technologically-linked society:
  • Complex social and economic systems;
  • Diverse market and social landscapes.

Entrepreneurs and managers with their eye to the bottom line, and government policy makers and program evaluators with an escalating imperative of policy and cost-effectiveness will need to find ways to adapt. The ability to map and understand networks of economic and social players and relationships will be more and more critical.

What is network analysis?

Network analysis is a form of mathematical data analysis that uncovers the nature, extent and structure of inter-woven connections among things. The “things” can be families of organisms, for biologists; interlocking subgroups of humanity, past and present, for anthropologists; hypothesized cause and effect interactions, for anaACO basic network FA2000 BetweennessC and key playerslysis of complex dynamic systems; and so on, or can be people and organizations for sociologists, historians and economists. The most well-known use of the methodology is in “social network analysis”, involving connections of people in communities such as LinkedIn and Facebook.

The methodology is perfectly suited to mapping and analyzing the channels by which information, communication and influence does or could flow. Channels are formed in many ways, from interactions and relationships within or between organizations and boards of directors, to markets and supply chains, to communities of expertise and research. Fortunately, the data you need to do this mapping can come from many different sources: from primary sources like interviews and surveys to secondary sources like attendance lists and memberships, emails, social media, citations and publications.

Applications to government policy, planning and evaluation

Much of government activity is now about research, technology and providing information. A critical factor for the success of these activities is their diffusion. Sending information without knowing how it will spread or get to its intended audiences is a bit like sending out a delivery truck without a map.

Research and development and information program design should therefore include understanding, building and effectively using paths of diffusion of information. Program evaluation should also should be concerned with this critical element of a successful activity. It’s not just how many hits there are on a site, or whether a sample of users are happy with the information, that is important. It is critically important to understand how the information has spread, why or why not, and how it could be distributed more effectively.

Program evaluation example: National Research Council Canada
In an example of my work, the NRC commissioned a social network analysis as part of an evaluation of their Measurement Science and Standards research portfolio. We were able to uncover key structures and characteristics of their metrology network, allowing a better understanding of the role they play and the role they should be playing in supporting the measurement related needs of other government departments. NRC will be able to better target and promote the use of their research products as a result, and have adopted this methodology for other research and planning tasks.

Policy/planning example: Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care
As another example from my own practice, I am working with the Ministry to develop a system map of the province’s immunization system using network analysis techniques. The system map complements the Ministry’s new logic model as a means to understand the complex web of resources, actions and outcomes for which they are responsible. This will support policy and operational planning as well as performance measurement and evaluation.

Similar work in health and medicine-related issues has been done in the United States, including, for example, mapping and analysis of diabetes outreach and tobacco control networks. It appears that network analysis is catching on early in science-based areas of policy and programming. This may be because analysts and decision makers in these fields are already conversant with challenges and methods related to complex environments.

Applications to business

A number of obvious applications to business are apparent and are starting to be pursued.

Public affairs/communications example: Tactix Government Relations and Public Affairs
Tactix Government Relations and Public Affairs recently commissioned a network analysis produced showing connections among members of influential committees in an area of health care. The structural metrics derived from this work identified important players and conduits for information, influence and collaboration.

Human resources planning, analysis and organizational review:
Large organizations in particular are finding social network analysis to be a powerful tool in better resourcing and organizing the flow of decisions and tasks among individuals and units within their structure. Where traditional organizational charts set out the intended logic and structure of a business organization, network mappings based on email, internal reports and other records of interactions show the actual routes of information and collaboration. This can, for example, identify hierarchies, isolated agents and information/workflow bottlenecks.

Other applications, such as market analysis, sales funnel analysis and supply chain analysis are all clearly ripe for network analysis.

You can run, but you can’t hide, from the complexity of the policy and business environments of 2015. Network analysis is a powerful tool to tame and make the most of your new reality.