Why networks matter in HR

close up photography of spider web

I’m currently in Europe, visiting my family and friends for the first time since I moved to Australia, which is why it has all gone a bit quiet. While I’ve been away, I got the results back for my Masters Special Project, a 10,000 word piece of research and the final piece in my Masters jigsaw. I got a good grade, and the examiners commented that there was “potentially much that could be learned” from the research, so I thought it might be helpful to write a summary here on the blog, so you don’t have to plough through all 43 pages. (Though if you want to, you can find it here.)

The idea of social network theory is not new and Borgatti et al 1. do a very useful summation of the implications of networks in the social sciences. For a long while, my personal experience has been that information, influence, trust, advice etc flow within organisations in a way that has nothing to do with the structure as expressed through organisation charts, management relationships and hierarchies. So the question I had was, do Human Resource (HR) departments  build that into their strategies? Are they taught to use networks in any way other than the very narrow concept of “networking” in terms of building contacts?

So what I did in this paper was look at two theoretical models of networks and use them to create a model for understanding what networks can do. By combining models developed by Borgatti and Foster 2 and Monge and Contractor 3 I identified different ways in which networks can be used, which I summed up in the following table

A matrix of network research

Networks can create variation (be used to get ahead of others) or homogeneity (make sure people have the same level of knowledge about something). Networks can be about their structure (who you are connected to) or connections (what it is that you share throughout the network). These dimensions lead to four types of networks, which Borgatti and Foster called Structural capital (variation through structure), Convergence (homogeneity through structure), Resource access (variation through flows) and Contagion (homogeneity through flows).

So having set up this model, I wondered how this could apply to HR. I looked at HR literature to identify specific areas and then applied them to the above model, to see whether all the various fields of the matrix could be considered to have an application in HR. This brought me to Table 2:

Areas of HR research categorised according to the Borgatti & Foster typology

This showed me that there was certainly a case for considering a range of potential applications of networks within HR practice. But does it actually happen? Do HR professionals used network concepts for things like the integration of newcomers or career information? In order to try to answer that question (within the limits of a four month, 10,000 word project with no ethics clearance…!) I used the modules of the Diploma in HR Management as a proxy for HR skills. I examined the modules to see where there was an explicit mention or implicit recognition of the role of networks. I then put all of this together in the following table:

A model of how social network theory could be applied to Human Resources

Items in bold indicate those which have already been identified in the academic literature. Items in italics indicate an area of potential research focus. Items with solid underlining indicate areas where networks are explicitly recognised in the Diploma of Human Resource Management. Items with dashed underlining indicate where networks are implicitly recognised in the Diploma of Human Resource Management.

What is immediately clear is that compared to the potential applications of networks to HR, the Diploma only recognises the value of networks in one area explicitly and a further two implicitly. The suggestion is therefore that networks could be a lot more helpful in implementing organisations’ HR policies than is currently the case. The work I have done here is not conclusive – that wasn’t possible within the project limits. But I think it creates an argument for both considering a broader-based academic training for HR practitioners and applying more focus within organisations to networks.

I’d really like to take this work in a slightly different direction, which goes back to the model I developed at the beginning to find out whether it is possible to identify factors of network effectiveness that can then be used to make sure that the effort put in to setting up networks is worthwhile. Are there things to do to make a Resource Access network effective that are different to  a Structural Capital network, for example? But that’s for another day…!

1. [Borgatti, S. P., Mehra, A., Brass, D. J., & Labianca, G. (2009). Network analysis in the social sciences. Science, 323(5916), 892–895.]
2. [Borgatti, S. & Foster, P.C. (2003). The Network Paradigm in Organizational Research: A Review and Typology. Journal of Management, 29(6), 991–1013. ]
3. [Monge, P.R & Contractor, N.S. “Emergence of Communication Networks” in Jablin FM & Putnam L.L (Eds) The New Handbook of Organizational Communication (2001) SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks]

Published by Antonia

I'm a British citizen and European Union offical, who lives in Brussels again after 6 years in London and 8 in Melbourne. I went to the London School of Economics and University of Melbourne. In 2008 I took part in the Eisenhower Fellowship Multination Programme, the subject of 3 of my blogs. You can find me on Twitter as @antoniam or on Mastodon as @antoniam@mastodon.scot

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