Organisational network analysis (ONA) may be best known for its essential and lasting contribution in studying unstructured communication and the dynamics of social networks within an organisation.
Since middle 2000 many companies have used this methodology to understand their network structures. However, according to Jason Langley (pictured right) and his research at London School of Economics (LSE), ONA also allows organisations to measure their social power.
Langley, who defines himself “a sort of hybrid”, is a Lawyer with over 15 years of experience in Media, a passion for data analysis and a strong interest in employee engagement. In 2012, he decided to go back to academia to carry out an on-going study on the role of the power within organisations.
I wanted to talk with him to explore how measuring social power can help improve internal communications. In this interview, Langley shares his view on the relationship between structure power and social power, the role of the influencers inside an organisation, and how communicators and change agents can make the most of ONA.
Gloria Lombardi: Your research focuses on the role of power inside organisation and how it links to engagement and performance.
Importantly, you focus on the distinction between structural and social power. Can you explain that distinction?
Jason Langley: There is a massive distinction between structural power and social power.
From an organisational behaviour perspective, John R. P. French and Bertram Raven were the first to identify this in the 50s. If we define power as the ability to influence others, we can find five dimensions:
Legitimate – you are my boss or manager, and because of your position you have the legitimate power to tell me what I should do.
Rewards – you are my boss or manager, and because of your position you have the ability to reward me for the work that I do (e.g. pay, bonuses).
Coercion – you have also the ability to punish me (e.g. you fire me).
Those three sources of power are structurally endorsed. But, there are two more dimensions, which are socially endorsed:
Expertise – You are an expert in this field. If I have a question about it, then I may want to come to you and ask for your guidance. You are not formally connected to my position but, because you are known for having an expertise, you are absolutely influential over my thoughts and actions.
Reference – This is about friendship, but not just in terms of ‘we are friends’. It is also about the fact that I respect you and admire you. I may want to emulate you because of the type of person that you are. Often the people who have this power have been in the business for years; they know everybody and are well liked and respected, which results in them having influence.
GL: What do those dimensions of power tell us?
JL: French & Raven’s body of work has been accepted and used inside organisation for years. However, most academic studies and practitioner insights have strongly emphasised structural power over social power. The whole command and control mentality of management is based on this idea that structural power is far more important.
When I started to study the topic I was shocked. Intuitively, I would have said that social power is at least as relevant as structure power. But, there was very little research to support this.
So, I decided to focus my studies specifically on this – I wanted to reassert the concept that those two sources of power are independent, that they can be measured and can co-exist.
GL: From a research point of view, how can you bring back the idea that social power is at least as important as structural power? It is hard to talk about it in absolute terms so how can you measure it?
JL: Power can’t be measured in the absolute, but only in its effects. This is why it’s relatively easy to look at an organisation’s hierarchical chart and understand where structural power may lie. Until recently it was near impossible to do this for social power. However, organisational network analysis gives managers the ability to understand where social power sits within their organisation.
The ONA that I use is based on a very simple questionnaire methodology. I ask individuals to think about the people who they trust inside their company, the people they like to collaborate with and share information with, and the people from whom they get energy and motivation. These are questions around social power – both reference and expertise. Then I ask them about the people whom they have been interacting with in the last week, in the last month, in the last six months and in the last year.
Ultimately, I create an alternative organisational chart; one which is based on social power and looks completely different from the structural power of a traditional organisational chart. The ONA allows us to see where the social influence sits within a business.
An ONA lets you analyse the power of the networks – how teams work and collaborate as well as how communications flow. Importantly, you can also identify the key influencers and key brokers inside the organisation.
GL: What’s the difference between an influencer and a key broker? How can identifying them can help communications?
JL: An influencer is someone who is highly influential within a network. The broker is highly influential across multiple networks.
From a communications and employee engagement point of view those people are highly valuable. If you can have them on your side, you are half way through succeeding in any change programme.
There is plenty of research, which goes back to the 90s, showing that key opinion leaders are absolutely critical in helping to change behaviours and attitudes.
GL: Can you tell me more about those studies?
JL: In the early 90s a serious viral infection started to spread in the US. Many hospital and doctors were struggling to inform and educate the population at risk. There was plenty of structurally enforced communication going on – from leaflets, to websites, and TV commercials. But, it was having minimal effect. Simply put, people were not changing their behaviours.
At that point, a new healthcare initiative took an interesting experiment. They identified the key opinion leaders who were absolutely trusted by the community at risk and pulled all their resources just on educating them. Then, those opinion leaders started to disseminate all the relevant information about the virus. They created an amazing support, which ultimately resulted in a massive reduction of infection rate.
GL: Based on your experience, how do organisations react when they see the organisational chart based on the social power? I would imagine it could be quite impactful.
JL: Two things often happen when I introduce the results to the board. First, they go very close to the screen to look at where they are in the chart – instinctively they want to know how much social power they have.
Secondly, there is astonishment. ‘Why is that person there? How can she have such an influence?’
It can be very difficult for some senior managers, particularly in highly hierarchical organisations. Many of them feel like they should have known all that information, but often this information sits outside of their own network and is impossible for them to know. For managers who are able to acknowledge and accept that, then this information is incredibly valuable and can be used for leadership development, communications strategies and engagement programs.
GL: So, it is about blending structure and social power; using both. Have I understood correctly?
JL: Absolutely. In my opinion, social power and structural power are equally important. The problem is that many traditional communications initiatives ignore social power, still relying on a top-down cascade approache. While the email sent to everybody by the CEO is still OK, you cannot ignore the most influential people in the business and the potential ability that they have to build connectedness and collaboration across networks. However, this has to be structurally supported, it cannot be a mass of undirected social power.
GL: Can we give some advice to internal communicators? How can they make the most of ONA?
JL: Social power exists, whether we like it or not. It is also becoming more vocal as social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Glassdoor.com – give it a voice and the emergence of Millennials takes hold. This presents a range of challenges that internal communicators must face.
At the same time, an internal communications team has a set of objectives that they have to achieve. Neither may they be able to tap into their organisation’s social power networks easily. For me, the answer is in co-creation – listening to what their organisation’s key opinion leaders have to say and working with them to co-create stories that meet the social and structural power needs of the organisation. The internal comms team establish the end goal, but the key opinion leaders help create the narrative on how to get there.
For many, recognising social power means letting go of some control. However, by doing this internal comms teams also get access to a huge amount of power. The alternative is to keep the control but of a much smaller amount of power and influence.
GL: Can individuals develop and nurture their social influence? For example, leaders who have high structure power but may be poor in social power.
JL: There has been little research around it, but in my opinion, social power comes from having Emotional Intelligence (EI). In this context, I think it is the ability to establish authentic connections with a range of people within your organisation. This is a personality trait, but traits can be nurtured and developed. For those people for whom it does not come naturally they can learn to become more open and social.
Equally, it may not be always necessary. I have recently done an ONA for an organisation where the CEO came up as lacking in social power and appeared distant from many key opinion leaders in his organisation. This CEO has very low EI and relies heavily on structurally endorsed power. This is quite common for people in leadership positions.
The solution in this situation was not to change his personality – as actually he was well liked and respected across the organisation – but to ensure that he was strongly connected with a small group of individuals who had high levels of social power. This allows him to connect with his organisation’s social power network, both to absorb and disseminate information.
GL: What happen if an influencer is highly disengaged?
JL: This happens often. Just because someone is high in social power, it does not mean that their opinions are aligned with the organisation’s.
The win-win situation would be to work with that individual, to drive up their engagement. As soon as you shine a light on someone, giving them the attention they feel they deserve, then the situation often changes quickly. I see this frequently, where the organisation’s biggest distractor quickly becomes the strongest advocate.
The beauty of the ONA is that it allows you discover all of this. Before organisations had this methodology available to them it was impossible to analyse connectedness – or lack of – among the network, flow of information, emotional distancing and when social power and structure power conflict.
Now, you can use all of this data to help your organisation make better decisions.