Why engage in a social network analysis?
The growth of cooperative networks of organizations has become a key strategy for addressing the public’s most pressing health and human services needs. If collaborative efforts are to be effective, it is critical for participants to look beyond their own needs, interests, and perspectives and consider how a multi-organizational network might be structured and governed to maximize its capacity.
An optimally functioning network will be able to:
- Provide a team approach to complex public health issues;
- Address multiple needs;
- Counteract the fragmentation of multiple provider organizations;
- Ease problems related to geographic dispersion;
- Naturally optimize the use of resources;
- Help transfer knowledge and enhance learning.
What is social network analysis?
Network analysis allows for the examination and comparison of the relationship between one organization and another, and among all the organizations that comprise the network as a whole. Depending on the type of data collected, it is possible to examine a range of issues across the network, including:
- The overall level of involvement among organizations in the network,
- The pattern or structure of involvement (measures of density and structural holes),
- The types of interactions between organizations (such as client referrals, shared resources, shared information, etc.),
- The extent or strength of each relationship (whether through referrals only, through referrals and shared resources, etc.), or what is referred to in the network literature as “multiplexity”,
- The level of trust each organization has in its dealings with every other organization,
- Perceived benefits and drawbacks of network involvement.
Collecting the information
Typically, data are collected from every network member (from the agency head, program director, or both) using questionnaires or structured interviews. There are four types of data that are needed to develop a full understanding of network structure and processes:
- Who ~ Which organizations are and should be involved in the network?
- What ~ What specific services and activities are offered by each network member?
- How ~ What types of relationships are being utilized by network members and how frequently do these relationships occur?
- Where ~ Where do the relationships among network members occur – do these relationships involve vertical and/or horizontal ties?
Analyzing the information
InSource uses UCINet 6, the standard and most widely used network analysis software, which allows examination of a broad range of network indicators. We develop both network statistics and diagrams, which can be used in a variety of ways to assist leaders in understanding what their network currently looks like, and to facilitate strategic planning about how the network might be strengthened.
Figure 1. This network diagram of researchers in tobacco control shows that those with backgrounds in Chemistry and Psychology rarely connect, and that a few key people from Pharmacy and Medicine link those two research communities. (Provan, K.G., Clark, P., and Huerta, T. 2006. “Transdisciplinarity Among Tobacco Harm Reduction Researchers: A Network Analytic Approach.” Paper presented at the NCI Science of Team Science Conference, Bethesda, MD, October, 2006.)
Presenting the information
The feedback process begins with the provision of a summary report on overall network indicators, and network maps. We can also provide confidential reports to each of the member organizations showing their position in network maps and key data describing these relationships. Sequential network analyses can be planned in order to gauge the effects of interventions intended to improve network functioning.
Once network data have been collected and analyzed, this information can be used in a variety of ways to facilitate strategic planning about how the network might be strengthened:
- They provide a global view, which helps participants understand what the network actually looks like and how it operates.
- They help stakeholders see exactly where their organization fits in the structure of the network, based not just on their own impressions, but on the actual experiences of the other network participants.
- They provide managers with data, from which they may shift priorities and resources so that their organization becomes more (or less) involved either in the network as a whole, or with certain key organizations that may be critical to its own effectiveness and to the effectiveness of the network as a whole.