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Identifying Change Influencers through Social Network Analysis

by Steve Garcia, March 29th 2013  

While the behavior of senior leaders acts as the catalyst for change, it is often associates' peers who define the culture and establish norms "on the ground." As a result, it is imperative to enroll employees at all levels across the organization to act as change influencers when undertaking a significant organizational change. These change influencers are responsible for:

  • Reinforcing senior leaders' communications within their own local workgroups;
  • Customizing communications for their specific function/region;
  • Reviewing and offering representative comments on proposed communications
  • Providing feedback regarding how the change is progressing "on the ground"; and
  • Identifying and sharing best practices across the organization.

In many organizations senior leaders nominate individuals to serve as change influencers. There are three challenges with this approach. First, senior leaders are often removed from day-to-day business operations. As a result, they may have misperceptions regarding who can effectively fill the change influencer role. Second, nomination decisions can be swayed by political considerations which may result in a sub-optimal slate of change influencers. Finally, the use of senior leaders' nominations does not provide an analytical or quantitative method to ensure the investment in the change influencers is fully leveraged. Building a network of change influencers takes resources; investments in communication and education as well as the time required for chosen associates to perform their change influencer responsibilities. Although, choosing many change influencers reduces the risk of inadequate organizational coverage, it can be wasteful. Choosing too few change influencers reduces expense but puts the change program at risk. How can organizations maximize their investment by choosing the fewest number of change influencers who can effectively get the job done?

Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis (SNA) offers an innovative solution to this challenge. SNA is a tool for analyzing the informal social networks that exist within an organization (see Figure 1). If an organizational chart provides the theory of how work occurs, the informal social network provides the real-world practice; it illustrates how people work together to solve problems and make decisions in the real world.


Figure 1: Formal vs Informal Structure

For example, from the above organizational chart on the left, we might conclude that Stern serves in a relatively unimportant position in the organization. The social network on the right, however, paints a very different picture. It shows that Stern is, in fact, a critical player in the organization. He plays a central role in facilitating communication across all three teams. Note that the size of the circle, or node, representing each individual in the social network diagram is determined by a mathematical function calculated based on the individual's centrality in the network).

Picking Change Influencers with SNA

Because SNA X-rays the organization to understand the patterns of communication and collaboration, it is uniquely suited to identifying change influencers. Through SNA one can pinpoint employees who, for a given topic or business process, are the most influential in the organization. More often than not, the identified change influencers are different than those individuals management would have otherwise nominated. This is not surprising given that managers employ a top-down perspective while SNA goes directly to the source, asking employees who they turn to for advice and guidance on a given topic.

Figure 2 provides an example of an organization's social network in which specific change influencer have been identified based on their ability to influence others.


Figure 2: Overall network with recommended change influencers colored in maroon

Furthermore, SNA provides quantitative metrics for determining the optimal set of change influencers within the organization. As can be seen from Figure 3, recommended change influencer, Actor #62, alone can be expected to influence only 34% of the network. When we combine Actor #62 with the rest of the recommended change influencers, the ability to influence the network increases to 90%. Understanding these metrics allows us to not only pick the "right" individuals but also pick the smallest number of individuals who provide adequate influence, thus increasing the project's return on investment (ROI).


Figure 3: Top candidates for change influencers ranked by % network coverage

To ensure that organizational change is implemented to its full extent, it is essential to loop in the people working "on the ground" and utilize change influencers who may act as the "eyes" and "ears" on behalf of the change initiative. SNA then becomes a powerful asset in strategically selecting the set of change influencers who can carry out the necessary implementation and communication activities to drive the change forward.

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