Julius Nyangaga about using SNA to understand innovation systems

Dr Eva Schiffer recently took us (a group of researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute, ILRI) through an introductory session to Social Network Analysis – the concept, the methodologies, its application.  Most of us were from the innovation side of the research world where qualitative constructs and processes in systems are easily appreciated. But deep inside (at least for me, and I am sure for most participants) we were anxiously looking for what promised to deliver quantitative bridges through which we could explaining meanings to number-minded die-hards.

The course (and the tools) did not disappoint.  All participants were ecstatic about the course, because through SNA we could now analyse systems from a ‘connections’  point of view, especially when considering actors (individuals, groups, organizations, or institutions) and their possible relationships (e.g. information flow, product or service delivery, income payments, influence, etc.).  The use of the software programs (VisuaLyzer and UCINet) to graphically display these actor-relationships was invaluable, but even more powerful was quantification of the patterns of relationships. Properties such as size, density and degrees of connectivity, centres of network or actor power and influence, subgroup types and clique or cluster analysis, etc. could be presented in numbers, charts and models

However, when considering how we want to communicate with our professional colleagues we are challenged by definite facts stated clearly about SNA. For one the concept works on very distinct actors rather than populations. A link should come from a clearly defined actor to another. Most published examples seem to only use such systems – Jane is a friend to James, who is friends to John and Mary. But we want to use representative samples for statistical inference about populations? Should SNA only be limited in application to systems like organizations where the actor is an easily observable Mr or Ms So and So? How do we present large numbers of certain actors (farmers, traders, pastoralist communities, or even a population of vectors in disease transmission studies)? How do we present mass media (newspapers, radio)? We wanted to use SNA to analyse innovation systems, e.g.  farmers get market information from extension officers; the regulation offices sends out policy messages to its field agents, who share these with traders, etc. Am I missing something here about the potential use of SNA?

The second challenge lies in the fact that actor ties (or links) are indicated in binary measures, i.e. the relationship is only either present (=1) or absent (=0). This may be inadequate if one was to assign scales to the ties for certain types of analysis, e.g. level of ‘influence power’, or percentage of returns earned by one actor from another. For example, farmers can share production information among themselves (how do you present this?!!) but they find links to extension agents for the same more valuable. Or market actors in a value chain are linked by product flow and revenue earnings but returns at each link vary and we want to use SNA to analyse for bottle necks and efficiencies. How can we develop questions that elicit binary responses be framed to show weights of link? How do we use graphical displays and quantified analysis to show such products – after all value chains are in many cases graphical constructs that should tell certain tales?

This is my first post on this log and the challenges I have stated and questions I have posed may be old hat to many out there. If you have already figured that out, please help those of us who are new the wood.

Julius Nyangaga,

Innovation Works, ILRI

How does a research assistant become director general?

This was one question that my participants at the ILRI Net-Map workshop chose to map out in a group activity to learn how the method works. I must admit, they didn’t find a simple answer in their one hour speed mapping session. Maybe because we were pressed for time and I didn’t allow them to finish their discussion? 🙂

But even if none of the participants will end up on their director general’s chair within the next ten years, I think that it is very useful for members of one organization, who have different levels of experience and have climbed different steps on the career ladder, to discuss amongst themselves what you have to do to be successful in this organization and how you can understand and use the existing networks to your own benefit. That’s where network mapping can become a tool of institutional learning and knowledge sharing.

And, after speculating from our low positions how to get to the top of the hill, it would be great to be able to sit down with someone who has climbed it successfully and ask: “So, who were all the individuals and organizations who supported (or impeded) you on your way to the top? How did/do you link to them? Who was how influential in helping you to get to where you are now?”

Learning by doing

I have just finished teaching my first 5 day “General Introduction to Social Network Analysis” course at the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya. I must say, I was a bit nervous before I arrived, because I knew I would interact with a group of researchers interested to be trained in a method and (maybe) used to trainings where you learn a method as a method and that’s that.

How would they react to my approach to this? Would they understand, why I wanted to frame my “methods training” with the bigger and the smaller picture?

The bigger picture: For me social network analysis is not a collection of algorithms and network drawing, but I am convinced that it rests on a fundamentally different philosophy and that social network analysis must rest on network thinking to actually make sense. Otherwise it’s just playing with data.

The smaller picture: I don’t think it makes sense to learn a method in abstract terms without directly applying it to concrete problems that you want to solve. It’s like learning to swim without water, learning a language without speaking.

So, what I had planned was to invite my participants into the world of network thinking first and then help them to work on their own current or future research projects to figure out how SNA would fit into their research framework, develop data collection tools, pre-test them by using other group members as guinea pigs and use social network measures and social network software to make sense of their results.

Today was the last day of the training and I must say, from the get-go it was a great and exciting experience, with a group that got very passionate about learning new tools to answer their concrete research questions, a lot of feedback between group members, who had a diverse quantitative and qualitative background, and some very concrete plans of individual project teams to apply social network analysis within the next few months. I’m especially thrilled about the later because I am convinced that SNA has a lot of potential for the use in development oriented research and it is great to see a community of practice around these issues growing.

After this great experience I am looking forward to the next run of this course and am currently integrating the lessons learnt into this module.

Sorry to everyone looking for animals

Strange, how the use of certain phrases might send people to your blog, who are definitely not here because of the network analysis. For weeks now I observe that the most common search term that sends people to my blog is “different kinds of animals”, just because some weeks back I said that different kinds of networks are as different as different kinds of animals. I’m amazed that there is such a high demand for animals of all kind and am sorry to frustrate you with a blog that has no animals at all…

Ready to roll!

Tomorrow I will start another one of these crazy trips around the world, carrying my Net-Map toolbox to places as far apart as Kenya (to give a training in Social Network Analysis at the International Lifestock Research Institute, ILRI), India (to be part of a team evaluating the impact of World Bank activities on agricultural production) and Ethiopia (to facilitate at the second Forum of the Challenge Program for Water and Food of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research – CGIAR). If you’re in Nairobi, New Delhi or Addis and would like to meet and talk about networks, knoweldge management etc., just drop me a line and we will see if we’ll find time. And, by the way, I will give a (sort of) public brown bag seminar about Net-Map on Thursday 16th of October on the ILRI campus in Nairobi. If you are interested in attending, contact me and I’ll put you on the list.

Visualyzer on Vista

My younger sister once said that one thing she admires in men (well, most of them) is that when it comes to solving a technical problem, they are like pitbulls, once they have sunk their teeth in this problem, they won’t let go until they are done with it.

My partner showed this pitbull like quality when it comes to installing my favourite Social Network Analysis program VisuaLyzer on my new computer that runs on Vista. It just won’t work and won’t work and won’t work… Unless, and that is a very simple solution once you found it, unless you save it in a different location than the default “program files”. So, when downloading it, it will ask you where to save the program and you just choose any other location on your computer and somehow that changes how it is saved and it runs just fine.

No, I don’t understand why, but the good thing about a solved problem is that you can enjoy the solution without understanding every detail of it.

Ethnicity and Power

One comment on my post about messy realities was that the role of ethnicity might be crucial to understand the power mix within and between institutions. While thinking about different (methodological) ways of including ethnicity into Net-Maps while drawing them (for example using differently colored post-its), I suddenly think of an old post of mine with the title “Words can kill” about the risks of using a method that makes realities explicit when working in tense situations.

That post was written as a reaction to discussing the use of Net-Map in violent conflicts. However, what made me think of it again was a simple thought experiment of drawing an ethnically explicit Net-Map within a peaceful international organisation. Imagine sitting down with staff on different levels in any international organisation that you know and drawing a network map of: Who are the most influential actors within your organisation? What are their roles and linkages? Who is how influential?

And after all the drawing has taken place, you add markers for ethnicity, nationality and gender. Compare the results with the general composition of your organisation’s staff in these three categories and with your mission statement about equality etc. If this leads you to thinking that you need to change something, make your strategies and come back in 3, 5, 10 years time to do the same exercise in your (hopefully) changed organisation to see how far you have come…

A word of warning though: I would be very hesitant to facilitate this in an organisation that I work in and want to continue working in. This is the kind of stuff, where an external facilitator who can take all the blame and ask all the nasty questions comes in very handy.

Dealing with messy realities

After pre-testing Net-Map to apply it to Bolivian policy processes, one troubling learning experience followed me for some days.

Imagine a political system (and I am not necessarily talking about Bolivia here, because I have seen similar systems all over the world) where the power of different actors is determined by a mix of their formal position, their political links and leverage and (importantly) their personalities.

Then add a very rapid succession of office holders for all relevant positions, most of them not too experienced in the administrative field but with a background of social movements and NGOs, some of them being brilliant in mobilizing the masses for their support.

To make things even messier, imagine every office holder, even the technical and administrative staff, to maintain strong political positions, ranging from hard-core socialist through moderate market oriented reformer.

If you try to draw a map of this situation, it will be a snapshot in the very true sense of the word, because: “This Minister is a strong character and is friends with the Vice-President, however, he is only in office since 3 weeks, so we don’t know what will happen, this independent research institute could be very powerful, but the new leader is not linked to the political networks, this radical Vice Minister has great capacity of mobilizing people but low ability to implement policy, this position that is important for disbursement of money has seen 6 different office holders in the last 2 years, two of them were really good etc.”

So what do you do with a map where each actor could have three different influence ratings (according to formal, political and personal characteristics) and each position’s influence can change overnight with a change of office holder?

This is a question that I am still moving around in my head. My preliminary answer is: Be clear about the fact that this is just a snapshot. And use Net-Map mainly as a tool for structuring a discussion that can easily become far too complex to understand if not visualized. The map might propose some short-term strategies of how to interact with specific individuals who are involved. And you might be able to understand a bigger picture of how a very dynamic system with low institutionalization of power works.

But, even though I am always interested in methodological issues, the really crucial question is: If you are someone who wants to improve this system or to achieve your goals within this system, what can you do?