Social Network Analysis within Agile Teams

[article]
Summary:
It is possible to apply techniques borrowed from social network analysis) to software development teams. Once revealed, social networks can be actively or passively stimulated for the benefit of team formation and cohesion. Agile principles incorporate social network stimulation on an almost subliminal level; this is one of the reasons why agile principles work.

All organizations have a formal network of relationships between their employees, which defines their interaction. These formal networks really aren't networks, they're hierarchies of knowledge and power. Explicitly the hierarchy is one of power; implicitly this is manipulated by access to information. Information is passed on or not passed on selectively.

Think about it: do you tell your boss everything? Do you really think he tells you everything? Legitimate power, based on rank, is expressed in the formal network. However, it is naive to think that people interact solely on this level. The informal network, or social network, can alter the dynamics of power by allowing different routes of access to information.

Organizations develop a multitude of social networks over time. These may run to the thousands in large companies, generating networks of complexity orders of magnitude higher than the org chart. The structure and connectivity of these informal networks are highly significant in determining the flow of information and influence within organisations.

It is possible to apply techniques borrowed from social network analysis (SNA) to software development teams. Once revealed, social networks can be actively or passively stimulated for the benefit of team formation and cohesion. Agile principles incorporate social network stimulation on an almost subliminal level; this is one of the reasons why Agile works.

Typically, non-Agile organisations pay scant attention to team dynamics, and operate at the level of the individual and their position and role in the defining hierarchy. Conversely, approaching team dynamics at the levels of the informal networks within a group underpins Agile and Scrum practices. Informal networks are by their nature organic and self-organising. It is not possible for management to explicitly engineer these networks or overtly manipulate them to achieve objectives, but their formation, evolution and complexity can be stimulated by both active and passive techniques.

This article discusses current concepts in SNA and how these apply to Agile software development. We then describe some novel methods for social network stimulation, such as ‘speed dating.' 

Social Network Analysis
To clarify: in the current context, the term ‘social network' does not refer to Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn or similar tools for online networking. The interactions on these networks are not representative of reality because they are limited by the structure of the sites.

Social networks are the networks that arise through informal connections between people, regardless of their position in the hierarchy of the organisation. For instance, in a team, or on a larger scale within an organisation, a social network could (and often does) consist of the people who take their kids to school and get to work earlier, the people who go out and play tennis, or the people who smoke.

In recent years, SNA has been accepted as a serious research discipline. Quantifying organic, complex relationships is challenging endeavour, both mathematically and conceptually. Social networks require a conceptual shift from the realm of the complicated to that of complexity.

Like any complex system, a social network is more than the sum of its individual parts and their attributes. The Cognitive Edge network (formerly the Cynefin Centre for organisational complexity), founded by Dave Snowden, and of which the author is a member and certified practitioner, is one group taking on the challenge of practically applying SNA and complexity to everyday team function. There is distinction here between social complexity and organisational complexity: organisations represent just one of many social networks that individuals form.

In every organisation some people are key influencers of decision-making. Known as the core group, these are the people who most strongly influence decisions within the organisation. Even though

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