What Makes a Social Network Valuable? The Answer Might Surprise You


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“What do we know about the networks of high performers? What promotes knowledge worker productivity? What would you do if you could see these networks? What would you do differently?” Rob Cross, author of a new book, Driving Results through Social Networks, shed light on the answers to these questions and others in a webcast I attended on February 19.

These questions are especially important because the answers lead organizations away from practices that worked a year ago, but might not today. For example, if you really want to know how your firm won a new client, what’s the value in knowing that your marketing team began by mining a database? As Mr. Cross shares, “when you look inside teams and see networks that are forming around an idea, you get a totally different perspective about how value is getting built in organizations.” And that perspective offers killer insight for sales teams.

The Social Network Analysis (SNA) tools Mr. Cross describes identify bottlenecks and gaps that hinder customer relationships. They also identify where “value is built out,” and where cross-selling occurs—insights particularly important for large, multi-division global organizations. Adding more Web 2.0 connectivity won’t help. According to Mr. Cross, “we don’t need more calls, meetings, and emails.” The key strategic and tactical changes result from learning where and how organizations need to add social network connectivity, both internally and externally.

Mr. Cross offers a social network taxonomy and fascinating statistics that upend entrenched views about how ideas are created, sold, and implemented. Three types of people hold critical importance:

Central Connectors: Leaders, experts, long-term employees. Central Connectors represent 3% to 5% of the individuals in a company, but account for an astonishing 25% of the value-added ties—relationships that foster the transfer of best practice knowledge, innovation, and revenue. Unfortunately, when it comes to information flow and value exchange, the same people can also create bottlenecks and impediments.

Brokers: The “unsung heroes” of an organization. Brokers drive change through organizations through their cross-division, and cross-department connections. Mr. Cross discovered that a paltry 30% overlap exists between these enablers and the “top talent” that corporate HR departments identify through traditional contribution measures such as revenue achievement. Ignore the insight at your own risk. Many know from painful experience what happens when a company lays off a critical inside resource who was viewed as “overhead.” “We’re sorry about Tom. He just didn’t have the numbers to justify our keeping him on board.”

Peripheral players: As the term connotes, peripheral players have few connections, and 40% are newcomers to their organizations. This issue presents special challenges for distributed sales forces. When new salespeople are brought into an organization, their companies suffer from long periods of low productivity as salespeople assimilate the tacit knowledge required for the job. But as Mr. Cross points out, social network analysis identifies opportunities to more rapidly connect peripheral individuals—and the knowledge they bring—into their organizations.

So given these archetypes, what do we know about high performers and their social networks? One thing is clear: bigger is not necessarily better. Through his research Mr. Cross found that high performers

Develop networks that minimize insularity

Maintain balanced ties across organizational lines

Nurture relationships that extend individual expertise

Mr. Cross demonstrated how to identify these individuals through looking at actual network diagrams. In one instance, using just one mouse click, he subtracted them from the network. The remaining people in the network appeared almost free-floating in space, untethered to Central Connectors in other divisions remaining on the screen. Through this representation, the real-world result becomes chillingly apparent: a company that doesn’t know its key liasons with its customer community can become virtually isolated if–and when–those individuals leave. Does the possibility that this could happen (slowly or quickly) keep you up at night?

Advances in Social Network mapping will enable companies to examine collaboration for sales and business development in a new light. What are the strategic opportunities? The risks? The costs? Mr. Cross frequently points out the irony that companies scrutinize routine travel expenses to the penny, but don’t often track collaboration costs such as time spent in meetings—possibly a far more significant expense for many corporations.

Mr. Cross shows that the energy that flows around the creation, development, and implementation of ideas can not only be documented, but that social network analysis yields new ways to model how enterprises create and transfer value. As the state of the art matures, it’s exciting to think about how companies will use this insight. Which new strategies, tactics, and processes will result?


  1. Hi Andy

    Good synopsis. I am waiting for Rob’s new book to become available in Europe. It wasn’t when I tried last week in London’s biggest bookshop!

    I have used Rob’s old book extensively when helping companies understand the social networks within and outside their organisations.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  2. This is an awesome insight into organizational structures. Thanks for summarizing it here. It actually fits right into the new post here at Customer Think that actually shows now the implication on sales for the customer facing side. Very complementary.


  3. Andy,
    We just introduced a research report today (The Mindshare Report) where we dissected over 1 Million customers of 6 global enterprises including Dow Chemical, John Deere, NetApp, New York Life, Toyota, and Vodafone. It is most shocking to see what a small group of analysts can do and that this can be dome by any trained consultant. Businesses are extremely vulnerable if they don’t understand the implications of social media. The “control” over their customer list is evaporating and more so the sentiment of their customer base. But as with every threat there is an equally huge opportunity. The report is available at http://socialmedia-academy.com

    So it reiterates what you are saying and actually provides hard core evidence.



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