Social Network Analysis as a Method of Leadership and Change

          Did you hear about the airline company  Virgin’s “Fly like a boss,” campaign

          Chances are if you did encounter the marketing event for this new West Coast-to-East-Coast flight, it’s because you were in the target demographic – but what about all of your friends? A 2013 article in Business Week details the problems marketers say they face when they cannot draw enough support from the social network of their target demographic for a new product.

          Marketers that companies like Virgin work with are discovering what Social Network Analysis (SNA) experts have thought: social network analysis is more the group than the individual. As Hanneman & Riddle (2005) state, SNA it is about focusing on relationships. When doing network analysis, Hanneman & Riddle state SNA reveals truths about relationships within an organization; in other words, it is about functionality. A successful marketing campaign, according to SNA, would be one that gets the target group involved in recommending the new product to friends, acquaintances, and family. 

          It may be the case that those friends-of-friends of the woman, or man, who first learned about a big offer, would be the ones more likely to spread the word about the offer – to even more people, perhaps. This phenomenon may be explained by the weak-ties argument outlined by Levin & Cross (2004).

          Levin & Cross looked at three types of relational qualities “structural, relational, and knowledge-related,” (2004, p. 1479). The researchers conclude that establishing influence, the ability to persuade others, depends on the degree and the quality of people’s social ties. Levin & Cross found those with indirect links may give and receive the most relevant information.

          Marketers developing new advertising campaigns may especially be wary of creating ad campaigns that are targeted to those in their own demographic as the article by Cross, Borgatti, and Parker (2002) illustrates. Teams with a special mission to pull off a great campaign, or higher-level executives may not take the necessary risk to put their ideas to the test in order to screen for untoward favoritism within their own network, including their immediate chain of command. Specifically, if it is too easy to communicate with team members, then the team may be blind to its weaknesses. Cross, Borgatti, and Parker discuss this in conjunction with “biases” (p.13). When thinking of biases, it may be helpful to consider how insulation from cultures beyond the immediate culture, can lead to isolation from other groups that might provide alternative views, in this instance, on how to promote the “Fly like a boss,” campaign. Did marketers only target this campaign to bosses, and high-level execs, for example? Although the article does not go into detail about this, it would appear that marketers did not consider the wow-factor that could have been gained had they promoted the campaign heavily to wanna-be bosses, and even entry-level employees who hope to land a coveted leadership role in the future.

          So far, this post has focused on marketers and advertising companies. However, it is important to realize that any organization that hopes to survive in today’s challenging global economy must rely, to a certain degree, on branding, marketing, and persuasion. People who have jobs, or professions, no matter their educational status, or title, are adding to, maintaining, or subtracting from brand perception. This is what it means to work for an organization. Long-term organizational success depends on several factors, but SNA is only one factor. Organizations may benefit tremendously from people who know how to build bridges, and liaise with “others.”


Definition of terms

          An organization that needs to change focus, whether it be sharpening its brand identity, or re-organizing, or recruiting new talent, may benefit from leaders who can generate new ideas about strategy and change. Social Network Analysis (SNA) is one method that may be useful in times of organizational change. The following terms are useful when thinking about SNA and organizational leadership.

  • Isolates – Actors who have no ties, or very few ties with others.
  • Gatekeepers – Actors who control the flow (i.e., are the single link) between one   part of the network and another.
  • Liaisons – Actors who have links to two or more groups, but are not a member of  either group.
  • Bridges – Pairs of actors who link two or more groups from their positions as members of either group.

       Hanneman & Riddle (2005) lay out a method of social network analysis that depends upon a grid showing how people inter-relate. This is a process known as a snowball technique. The grid allows one to view specific relationships between people and also allows one to see, in general, the degree to which those relationships are equalized. When doing network analysis, Hanneman and Riddle state it is important to remember that one sole person will not be the focus of the study. Benefits of social network analysis include the ability to generate large quantities of data, while drawbacks include the cost of running such studies, according to Hanneman and Riddle (2005).

          Three types of dyadic relationship qualities are  “structural, relational, and knowledge-related,” Levin & Cross (2004, p. 1479). The researchers conclude that the degree and quality of people’s “social ties,” plus the kind of knowledge that people are perceived to have, may influence change. For instance, Levin & Cross found those with indirect links may give and receive the most relevant information. Also, intuitive knowledge was passed on when both parties were deemed to be good at what they do.



Any of today’s organizations, even those associated with economic stability such as the health care and higher education fields, are vulnerable to chaotic change due to rapid advances in technology and global and local economic fluctuations. Also, Generations X and Y are slowly influencing the landscape of work. Therefore, it is crucial to understand how social networks function. SNA is one method of understanding how individuals working in teams carry out values like collaboration, cooperation, and harmony. The end result may be greater inclusion and integration of diverse voices at either the boardroom table of your organization, or in small working groups.



Cross, R., Borgatti, S., and Parker, A. (2002). Making Invisible Work Visible: Using Social Network Analysis to Support Strategic Collaboration, California Management Review, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 25-46.

Hanneman, R., and Riddle, M. (2005). Introduction to Social Network Methods. Riverside, CA: University of California, Riverside.

Ibarra, H., and Hunter, M. (2007). How Leaders Create and Use Networks, Harvard Business Review, pp.1-9.

Krackhardt, D, and Hanson, J. (1993). Informal Networks: The Company Behind the Chart, Harvard Business Review, pp. 104-111.

Levin, D.Z., and Cross, R. (2004). The Strength of Weak Ties You Can Trust: The Mediating Role of Trust in Effective Knowledge Transfer, Management Science 50, pp. 1477-1490.