Organizations are complex social systems comprised of both formal and informal structures. The consequences of formal structures are well-understood. However, informal structures also exist in every organization and can have equally powerful impacts (positive and negative) on organizational performance. You need only consider how people seek advice or information (or block it) to understand the potential power of informal social structures. Still, it’s the rare organization that tries to understand the factors that shape informal interactions.
Social network analysis (SNA) is ideal for assessing informal structures. SNA dates back to the 1950s and is rooted in the fields of anthropology and social-psychology. It considers all social systems, including organizations and groups of organizations, as networks of nodes joined by various relationships. Any number of relationships may exist between network nodes, including those based on technical expertise, work duties, friendship, trust, demographic similarity, perceived power, and even ideology (to name a few). SNA was developed specifically to measure and assess such relationships, providing an unparalleled view of previously hidden informal structures.
Sample social network diagram.