Anil V Vaidya
Relationships bind people. The civilisation and culture emanates from these bonds, helping people share ideas at the conceptual level and goods & services at the physical. Relations do not necessarily emerge from formal structures, many connections are from informal social structures. While considering social structures, social scientists focus on individuals and their attributes, but little attention is paid to the connections. Social network analysis is the application of the larger field of network science to the learning from human connections. It helps identify groups, their members and the level of connectedness. The tighter the group, the more likely that members will exhibit a particular trait and move in a particular direction. The recognition of such networks is important in areas like organisational behaviour. Social network analysis has been effectively deployed in the political arena. Social media itself made a big impact in elections in various countries, like the US and India.
As such, social networks occupy a central place in forming opinions. This is far more critical in the case of the millennial generation, who form a significant portion of our population. Today, we have abilities to ascertain people networks, their members and the strength of their relationships. Conventional social media such as Facebook and Twitter are being used by people to voice their concerns, views, assessments. It was interesting to note the groups that were formed on social media after the recent appointment of the chief minister of an important state of India. An analysis of their conversations led to determining the groups, their distances from each other and the strengths of their bonds. The findings were very interesting.
An aspect of such an analysis is to explore such entities and their structures, but another useful aspect relates to the actual use of the findings. It is possible to take actions with respect to the opinions expressed, thus paying heed to the views of the people concerned. Going a step further, it is also possible to spot the influencers and popular persons who can change the direction of networked groups. Network analysis tools help us do such spotting, assisting interested parties. Coming back to organisational setting, a person belonging to a conventional lower organisational hierarchy may be an opinion maker for a large part of the organisation. By analysing conversations on internal as well as external social media, one will be able to know such informal authorities. Once identified, necessary actions may be put in place to steer towards desired path.
How do we see such networks? There are two ways in which this can be achieved. One, the picturisation of networked groups is an effective way of displaying the base structure. It creates a high impact to experience that the graphical representation can be modified at the press of a button to bring out subtle aspects of the network. Further, the diagrammatic presentation shows the outliers and their views. It is interesting to know that, in most public social media platforms, the expression of every member is visible and can be acted upon if required. The Graphic Theory, developed during the 18th and 19th centuries, offers insights into the networks to be seen and understood.
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Two, quantify the findings so that one network can be compared with another, not only visually, but also numerically. Today, the number of parameters can be measured to express a network. The tight or loose network, the central person in terms of influence or popularity, the distance of one group from another … a large number of metrics can be computed. Of course, one has to interpret these correctly. The data for such analysis can be collected on occurrence of a particular event or in a longitudinal manner over a longer duration. Public social networks allow certain amount of data to be gathered, generally limited to a few days. But there are specialised businesses who compile such data. It is left to the analyst to interpret it.
After the recent elections and appointments, we worked not only on finding what the general public was saying, but also found several groups formed during that period. It was interesting to gauge the sentiment emerging from conversations. The sample indicated that the positive and negative sentiments nearly matched. It was not surprising to find that the conversations spiked post-event but now have settled at a lower number.
One cannot be oblivious of the social media. Its power is enormous, well-proven in many countries and major global events. Social network analysis is an invaluable tool that can create an impact if judicially deployed and acted upon.
Author is Professor & Area Head, Information Management, SPJIMR.