Susannah Patton: To find out who was working with whom and how scientists were getting new ideas, packaged-food giant Mars decided to map the group’s professional contacts using a process called social network analysis (SNA).

In an online survey, R&D managers were asked to name the 15 people they work most closely with and whom they go to for advice, as well as further details of their professional network. Working with Rob Cross, assistant professor of business at the University of Virginia and SNA expert, the company was able to map the network and examine data on how the scientists work—and don’t work—together.

John Helferich, senior R&D vice president for Masterfoods USA, says Mars has used the SNA results to sort out relationships among key researchers. The company has determined, for instance, which scientists were overburdened (too many people were going to them for help) and is working on eliminating the need to go to senior people to get approval for things. “This speeds up innovation,” Helferich says.

Companies that have been frustrated by traditional knowledge management efforts, such as Mars, are increasingly looking for ways to find out how knowledge flows through their organizations. Looking at the company org chart, it turns out, often doesn’t tell the real story about who holds influence, who gives the best advice and how employees are sharing information critical for success. This all takes on greater urgency as millions of baby boomers prepare to retire over the coming decade. Social network analysis provides a clear picture of the ways that far-flung employees and divisions are working together, and can help companies identify key experts in the organization.

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