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It’s Time Business Schools Teach a Social Network Analysis Course and Take it Seriously

Recently, I’ve been having conversations about the teaching, or lack of a social network analysis course in business schools both in the graduate and undergraduate levels. I really don’t think enough is being done or that there is an active effort to bring about this powerful science to the hands of future business executives, managers, and professionals.

First of all a simple search on indeed.com for the keywords social network analysis reveals several thousand jobs available in a variety of areas. It’s true that the job set is very diverse covering everything from intelligence analysis to marketing, and it’s true that most job are not solely focused on SNA, but how is that different from finance or operations? Wouldn’t that actually be a strength, not a weakness?

Here’s a list of some of the jobs I found:

  • Social Network Analyst
  • Network Systems Analyst
  • User Acquisition Associate
  • Digital Marketing Strategist
  • Regional Director of Social Services
  • Marketing Director
  • Social Media Account Supervisor
  • Big Data Scientist
  • Director, Social Media
  • Global Category Manager
  • Innovation Advisor Level VI
  • Director, Organizational Development
  • Targeting Officer

Better yet –  here’s a list of the companies I found hiring for positions with a social network analysis component:

  • State Street
  • Dell
  • PWC
  • Textron
  • ESRI
  • Airforce
  • Lowe’s
  • Amazon
  • Leidos
  • Booz Allen Hamilton
  • Oracle
  • Comcast
  • GE
  • Uber

As you can see there a lot of brand name companies there. Enough to entice any administrator of a business school curriculum, so why don’t more business school teach an SNA course?
At the moment, social network analysis is being applied across a number of industries and domains for critical applications. Industries such as:

  1. Software Engineering
  2. Research & Academia
  3. Data Science
  4. Defense & Intelligence
  5. Marketing
  6. Organizational Development/HR
  7. Consulting
  8. Operations
  9. Government & Policy
  10. Entrepreneurship

It doesn’t stop there. There are also  a number of well-known (tech) products that are heavily reliant on SNA techniques (as the core function), such as: (feel free to add more in the comments section)

  • Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and any social media platform
  • Dating and Meeting Apps (Tinder, POF, Match etc.)
  • IBM Watson (Artificial Intelligence), IBM Social Software, IBM Consulting Groups
  • Cisco/Internet Networks, Telecom Networks

But of course, many business schools today are run just like a business. That means outcomes are favored over method, and curriculum design is executed with hope of maximizing student graduation, pay, and success in general. OK. Let’s take into account industries where full-time jobs were offered to MBAs from a top 10 business school (shameless plug – I looked up the graduation brochure for the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown where I got my MBA for this).

Consulting – From PWC, KPMG, Deloitte to E&Y, SNA is being used by consulting firms for numerous applications. Most if not all of these firms have internal dedicated practices for SNA that are shared across the organization.

Consumer Products The importance of SNA in the consumer products industry is clear. For marketing purposes social media provides a powerful application for the methods discussed in this course. But even internally, companies such as Proctor & Gamble use SNA to increase the collaboration and innovation of their internal R&D team. One P&G case study looks at over 8000 employees as a network and the researchers attempt to figure out ways of improving their R&D investments.

Government Terrorism and security applications of SNA are well-known, from the NSA’s data collection process to the policy implications of global trade networks. An up and coming major application of SNA in the government space is in law enforcement. Through the analysis of drug sale networks and black market flows criminals can be brought to justice, and organized crime can be disrupted. For MBA students entering policy-making roles post-graduation, a fundamental understanding of these methods is paramount.

Healthcare Understanding how disease spreads cannot be achieved with network models – says the NIH, and the CDC. From a business leadership perspective, industry is currently using SNA to identify medical practitioner’s network of referrals in order to better target doctors for pharmaceutical products and identifying industry influencers.

Hospitality, Non-Profits, Energy & Real Estate The uses of SNA for MBA students are many. And, in all of these industries the traditional uses of SNA apply –that is, marketing, organizational development, and (big) data modeling.

Technology It’s obvious that the uses of SNA in this field are too many to count. From the creation of stable and redundant computer networks, to social media platforms – the applications are too numerous and very relevant.

Question: Does an SNA course provide skills that are too specialized for MBAs who may eventually become managers, directors, CEOs and not necessarily technical analysts or big data practitioners?

The answer is simple: No, it doesn’t.

In a world that is increasingly run and managed through the connections between individuals, gaining a fundamental understanding of networks is the modern-day equivalent of having a fundamental understanding of the financial statement or the basic structure of a corporation. Though much of the time the large majority of MBA students do not actively work with or read financial statements or read corporate governance reports, having a clear and fundamental understanding of the terminology and implications of those two makes each student a better manager, director, and CEO because they allow for more educated decisions to be made.

And I should also say that as the future continues to be based more and more on networks and their agent-level behaviors those skills will become increasingly handy. Though an SNA course brings immediate value to the MBA student and any top business school, as I outlined by the many current uses in industry above, this is also a course for the future – the results of which may become more apparent as students gain a stronger footing in industry.

Alright, fine. A social network analysis course is useful! But why not simply teach a Big Data course that covers a variety of techniques familiarizing the students with how data works with business?

That’s still a viable approach, but in practice it doesn’t really work well.

As someone who has taken an MBA course in Big Data, often times there’s simply too much to know and cover for the class to be actually useful. Big Data courses typically include machine learning, data mining, sentiment or semantic analysis, and a little about data visualization techniques. You can spend the majority of the course doing regressions without really understanding that regressions are a weak method of analysis because with enough data you can correlate everything to everything else. Moreover, the course then turns into more of a statistics course than anything else.

The subjects being studied in a Big Data course are too technical for a typical MBA student to take with them for their next job opportunity, unless they have prior technical training that they can leverage. The typical MBA student comes out of that class feeling more aware of data principles, but without any independently useful and applicable skills that can be used immediately in industry or in their own (future) startup.

In an SNA course, you only need MS Excel with a NodeXL add-on to be able to download networks on the scale of hundreds of thousands of data points and analyze them immediately – with immediate business applications – including marketing your own startup. That means that students will not only get a sense of data analysis, but will come out with tangible skills that they can put to use right away.

This brings me to my next point: Entrepreneurship. As more and more business schools push into the development of a cohort of business entrepreneurs, it’s important to note that giving the students some useful technical skills is ever more vital. Students realize this, and have an interest in it. An SNA course delivers this!

When looking at so many of those fun entrepreneurship competitions held in business schools, 90%+ of the companies and products proposed are technical in nature with the large majority being based on an application or software. Well, there isn’t an application or software created today which does not rely on a social network feature. There are many however that do not use machine learning or data mining.

Finally, while an SNA course aims to train students on some technical aspects of network theory, the sociological perspective – in the form of social psychology and social anthropology imprinted in SNA methods can, not only be useful as a kind of sociological training for MBAs, but as an interesting and engaging subject matter the (positive) consequences of which will become clearer as students move forward through their careers.

Oy! Business Schools. Get on it!

I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.

About The Author
Joseph A.E. Shaheen
Computational Social Scientist. Former Consultant. I fought ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in my own way. Livin' life in Washington, DC
2 Comments
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  • Tom Briggs
    Mar 29, 2016 at 9:45 am

    What about Rob Cross at UVA? Isn’t he teaching social networks at Darden?

    • Mar 30, 2016 at 2:17 pm

      He is, but I think Cross is at the school of commerce. Either way, I don’t think the majority of business schools really take this course seriously. I think may it had something to do with applications – like it doesn’t really fit into just one category i.e marketing, organizational development etc. If anyone knows any schools that are doing this well, feel free to comment.

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