Returning to our Faculty Spotlight series, today’s post comes from Christopher (Rusty) Tunnard, Professor of Practice of International Business. Prof. Tunnard currently teaches Field Studies in Global Consulting and Social Networks in Organizations, a two-part modular course.
What’s the connection between identifying competition and cooperation between Somali warlords, discovering patterns of collaboration in the global arms market (pictured below), finding the right people to help start a business in Tanzania, shaping the media coverage of conflict in Syria, and helping teenaged girls from Islamic countries find ways to connect and to share information on gender-based issues? Besides being very “Fletcheresque” in their geographic and intellectual breadth, these are all topics that have been tackled by students in my class on Social Networks in Organizations, a course that I have been teaching at Fletcher since 2011.
If you had told me ten years ago that I’d write a doctoral dissertation on the development of resistance networks in Serbia during the Milosevic era using social network analysis (SNA) and would later create courses in this fledgling discipline appropriate for a graduate school of international relations, I might have suggested that you seek professional help. But that is exactly what I did, and I thank my lucky stars—and my advisors and students—for making it possible for me to undertake this journey.
One of the many fascinating things about SNA is that it is truly multi-disciplinary. At the annual meeting of SNA practitioners, you’ll find doctors, intelligence and military analysts, mathematicians, physicists, sociologists, business consultants, anthropologists, financial analysts, political scientists, and many more. Everyone, it seems, is interested in examining how people are connected, how they influence the networks they’re in, and how those networks shape the thinking, behavior, and actions of the individuals who comprise them. SNA has played a major role in uncovering bin Laden’s location, reducing the spread of AIDS in Africa, and identifying the key players in dodgy financial schemes (starting with the Enron case.) Although SNA has been around in academia for a few decades, it was a very simple network map of the 9/11 terrorists that rocketed it to prominence. This map, constructed from open-source data, showed that all the terrorist hijackers were within one step, or directly linked, to two individuals with direct ties to bin Laden, whom the government had been investigating for a year before the attack.
Since 2005, the incredible growth of social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter has redoubled the effort to understand how social networks form and can be used to promote political action (think Twitter and the Egyptian resistance) and increase the effectiveness of viral marketing (think Facebook, Google and Amazon). Images such as the one pictured here depict how Twitter users disseminate ideas and issues quickly around the world through mentions and retweets. In this case, it’s a conference hashtag that has, by midday of a full-day session, spread well beyond the core group of conference attendees and followers clustered in the middle.
Two recent developments further illustrate the pervasiveness of SNA. The Snowden revelations have, for better or worse, led to a wider appreciation of how network analysts can identify potential people of interest by looking at patterns of mobile-phone calls without using any of the content. Elsewhere, people are using a combination of SNA and sentiment analysis (ranking the relative “temperature” of words used to describe something) to look at both the spread and intensity of ideas in such diverse applications as new-product marketing on social media and identifying potential political hot-spots before they develop, by examining how issues are being discussed and mapping their velocity and geography.
While SNA is only one diagnostic tool in the arsenal of analytic techniques, it is fast becoming a must-have skill for analysts and managers alike. Its broad appeal may be due to the fact that it employs both left- and right-brain skills first to visualize and then to analyze often counter-intuitive networks of connections that cannot be easily addressed by other means. And SNA can be done using data that governments, NGOs, and companies already collect.
This is an exciting field to inhabit, both academically and professionally, and Fletcher provides me with the opportunity both to teach this new set of skills and to learn from students whose passions and interests span the entire range of international relations.