Improving Workflows

Service providers do not have the same luxury of visible workflows as production companies do. They can however still use similar tools to improve performance by mapping the specific workflows. Social network analysis lets managers assess the complexity of workflows, find inappropriate collaboration patterns and identify over- and underutilized employees.

In the following example the manager is looking at the workflow “handling of a new client”, but this text snippet can be exchanged to study other types of workflow. Other examples could be the workflows regarding “received job applications” or “writing the financial report”.

Template for the Study

It can be a good idea to include a textbox explaining in detail which workflow that is being asked about. It is also important to note that if the respondent does not find that the question applies to his function then he should answer accordingly – and not indicate connections he has outside the questions’ scope.

  1. How often do you give input to this person in regard to handling a new client?
  2. How often does this person, if immediate to you, make decisions about handling a new client?
  3. To what extent does this person play the same role as you in regard to handling a new client?

What to Look for and Do

Map the Workflow

Where a process map shows the individual steps that take place, a social network diagram shows who is involved. To some degree there will be a visible flow of information indicated by the ties’ directions. The social network for the first question can be assessed both on a micro and macro level. At the micro level you can see the information flow between individuals and on the macro level you can see it between groups. At a group level, the balance between how often the possible connections are used indicates the direction of the macro level connection. A simple example of this is shown in the matrix below.

Map the Decision-Making Process

In a much similar manner as the mapping of the workflow, the decision-making process can be illustrated. Here you will use the answers to the second question to map the social network. Perhaps one of the most interesting analyses is the identification of potential bottlenecks. To do this you will look for bottlenecks as the person illustrated below. You might also want to look at the individuals table to find these people with high betweenness scores.

Assess Complexity of Workflows

For both the first and second question the social network diagrams can be assessed for complexity. Simple workflows should show as simple social network diagrams. A simple network diagram is one with a few ties that are, mostly, directed the same way. One would also expect some unconnected nodes. A complex workflow, mostly one that is not carried out often, usually shows up as a complex social network too. A complex social network diagram shows many connections between people and can, therefore, be difficult to decipher without statistics.

Your task, as the manager, is to assess if the complexity of the network corresponds with that of the task. If a task should be simple, but the social network does not reflect that, it needs to be made clear what the workflow is and what each employee’s role is.

Relieve Overutilized Employees

The social network for the third question can be used to identify underutilized employees that can relieve overutilized employees. The social network will not tell you how they are utilized in the network, but it will tell you who should be able to substitute each other. Going back to the first two questions you can find the central employees, measured by number of in-degrees, who might want to be relieved from their central roles in the network. Not only can it be stressful for an employee to have this network role, the organization also relies heavily on this employee and thereby takes an unnecessary risk.


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