The Girl with the X-ray eyes: shedding light on imperceptible networks

24 November 2015 -


The most important information in organisations is the nature of the networks: Who likes whom; who do they trust; who do they help most; who are central and who’s peripheral? There are now tools to quantify these kind of imperceptible information and management networks…

Adrian Furnham

It is 120 years since X-rays were invented and they are still a cause of interest and debate. Thirty years ago they were used in shoe shops to help fittings. Now people complain that X-ray type machines used at airports are too revealing exposing body shape and size as well as concealed items.

People now know about the dangers of X-rays and refuse or question when doctors or dentists require them. First they were magic, then everyday, then dangerous.

Many have written about X-rays. Isaac stern said “Mozart's music is like an X-ray of your soul – it shows what is there, and what isn't”. Stella Adler noted “The theatre is a spiritual and social X-ray of its time.” People are said to have X-ray insight; to get to the heart of issues, to get beneath the superficial surface and really look at the structure underneath.

So what has this got to do with business?

Consider how one might go about diagnosing a chronic or acute problem in an organisation. Why is productivity so low, and absenteeism or employee turnover so high in one plant/office which is in many ways so different from comparable others? Why has morale dropped so suddenly in one part of the organisation? Why do people bemoan office politics so loudly in one part of the organisation compared to others?

To some extent understanding the “financials” of an organisation is easy compared to understanding the relationship issues. The question is, how do you go about understanding how and when and why people inside organisations communicate or fail to do so? And, indeed, what do they talk about?

One obvious way is to interview key players. The method is slow and expensive and beset by two big problems.

The first is whether people interviewed have the knowledge or insight to describe and explain what is going on about them. Some people are more observant than others. They are psychologically minded and can see and interpret the motives and tactics of those around them.

The second problem is that people may not be willing to tell you the truth. Indeed the more ambitious and Machiavellian the person is, the less likely they are to share this with a strange outsider. Through self-deception or impression management they may give a one-sided picture that paints them as “good citizens” of the organisation.

The most important information in organisations is the nature of the networks: Who likes whom; who do they trust; who do they seek information and help most; who do they avoid; who are central and who’s peripheral?

And this is where the girl with the X-ray eyes comes in.

Laura Weis from PGI is an expert on what is called Organizational Network Analysis (ONA). ONA is used to zoom in on informal interaction networks in order to diagnose possible misalignments in the organisational structure. By revealing the presence or absence of interpersonal relations, ONA helps to diagnose and mitigate dysfunctions.

When doing an ONA, employees are asked to disclose their social interactions with other employees along particular dimensions, for instance getting information or professional support, seeking out personal support and so on. Typically, respondents are asked to indicate all the people they know in the company, department or team of interest. Subsequently they are asked a battery of question about these individuals such as: Who do you frequently interact with? From whom do you receive or share new ideas? Who would you consult if you have a personal problem?

A typical ONA then provides a graphical map depicting connections based on responses to the above questions. Quantitative metrics are used to specify strategically important people in a network. Individuals with key network roles are identified and characterised – eg, central connectors, information-brokers and unrecognised rising stars. Understanding and appreciating their personal characteristics (eg, personality, motivations, attitudes and beliefs) allows for targeted resource allocation and process improvement.

“Central Connectors” are the most popular individuals. These individuals tend to be adaptable, stable extroverts with high levels of prestige. Usually this role is regarded as extremely positive, yet being overly popular and visible may lead to overload. High levels of dependence on one individual may result in limited flexibility and stagnation.

“Brokers” connect people across occupational, hierarchical or geographical boundaries. These people are key in ensuring fast and efficient information flow. They can bring together cliques or factions within the overall network who are otherwise not communicating.

“Unrecognised rising stars” cause surprises. These people tend to occupy relatively insignificant positions in the formal network but turn out to be vital in informal networks.

Weis, a fluent English and German speaker, has done her X-ray analysis in different European countries. Her clients have often been surprised but always delighted by her reports full of X-ray diagrams about what is really going on in companies.

“The idea behind this sort of analysis is not new,” she says, “but the computer programs are now so powerful that we can really see into social networks. I was delighted by a client who called me The Girl with the X-ray Eyes, after I delivered a report that exposed and explained what was really going on in his organisation”.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School. Find his website here

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