Unilever and Silverman Research
Understanding Informal Networks in Procurement


Unilever is one of the largest consumer goods businesses in the world. 150 million times a day, someone somewhere chooses a Unilever product. With a turnover of €44 billion, it employs 163,000 people in 100 countries. The way in which Unilever purchases its materials and services is a crucial aspect of the business.

Unilever Procurement was looking at how they could improve cross-regional collaboration. To help them get an overview and pinpoint critical focus areas, they commissioned Silverman Research who is experienced in organizational research and internal employee engagement studies. In order to assist Unilever they use social network analysis to map trends of information sharing and organizational connections.


The study conducted consisted of 92 managers from all three major regions (Americas, EMEA and Asia) and represented all teams within procurement. Each team received a web-based survey to rate their interaction with other teams; the survey has an 85% participation rate.

Participants were asked two questions:

  1. How much do you typically turn to this person for information on work-related topics?
  2. Who would be more effective if they could communicate more?


The study highlighted a potential problems that managers were previously unaware of. Additionally, through its ability to quantify information, the survey was able to help demonstrate, in a tangible form, areas in need of additional attention.

First off, on a network level, the study helped illustrate that two regions are significantly, and actively, connected to one another. These two groups were also seen as having high densities, individually. The third region analyzed through the study, however, was seen to have far fewer internal and external connections. Consequently, this isolated region also appeared to be rather fragmented.

In addition, the study also conducted research into areas dealing with central employees. The study identified key people within the organization, whom were determined as central employees as a function of either the number of connections they had or how they tied groups together. While some were expected to be key people (e.g. upper management), others were not and the study thereby helped top management recognize these efforts.

Furthermore, the study produced a list of mutual ties. All respondents were given a list of people whom they believed they could benefit from as a result of increased communication - specifically those people they, the respondents, also indicated they would like to work more with. In other words, lists of mutually beneficial relationships were reported through the study.


Emma Berresford of Unilever said, “We were largely unaware of the potential of social network analysis to assist in mapping informal relationships within our function. The project allowed us to identify and better support important people in the network, as well as looking at which groups would be more effective if they could communicate more.”

Michael Silverman, MD of Silverman Research said, “We explored a number of SNA tools to conduct our analysis with Unilever, but we felt that Socilyzer was the best fit for our purposes. Many of the tools we explored were very academic and heavy, whereas Socilyzer is user-friendly and makes it easy to share and explain outputs through its dynamic visualisations.”

Michael Silverman presented the findings of the Unilever social network analysis at Social Media Week London 2012. Learn more about Silverman Research at