Analysing Online Social Networks from a Soft Systems Perspective

Analysing Online Social Networks from a Soft Systems Perspective

Shavindrie Cooray (Department of Business Management, Curry College, Milton, MA, USA) and Steven Gunning (Department of Business Management, Curry College, Milton, MA, USA)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/IJSS.2016070101
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In recent years online communities have become popular as a way for dispersed members to interact and share ideas. However, there is limited research on the systemic analysis of such groups. In this paper the authors draw on systems research to suggest that one can only understand or interpret data gathered from an online group by assigning meaning to it in the context of a wider ‘system'. Here they demonstrate that conventional methods of offline group analysis are ineffective when applied within online communities. As an alternative they offer a means of importing big data from a community on social media and identifying the kinds of information that would be typically gathered during an offline systemic analysis into a problem situation. The authors offer as an aid to managers a framework that identifies appropriate Social Network Analysis (SNA) metrics (from the imported data) that corresponds to soft systems concepts. During their analysis of a community on Twitter they found that their ideas provided a way to gain a more holistic understanding of the roles and interactions in a virtual community. The authors also found examples of the use of informal power in the Twitter community under study. This information can be useful to managers when producing marketing plans, during product development and when identifying opportunities for growth.
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Introduction And Purpose

In recent years the rise of communication technologies (e.g.: social networking sites, blogs, wikis, listservs) have enabled globally dispersed individuals to form online communities (OC) and share ideas (Smith et al, 2015; Sproull and Ariaga, 2007). Managers are increasingly interested in such communities since they provide valuable information about customer sentiments and feedback on their products (Dheer and Verdegem, 2015; Humphreys and Wilken, 2015; Majchrzak et al, 2013). This information can be useful to managers when producing marketing plans, during product development and when identifying opportunities for growth. Traditionally, researchers have used face to face groups as a way of understanding participant sentiments (Mumford, 1995; Checkland, 1995; West, 1995; Champion and Stowell, 2005; Cooray, 2010; Hart, 2013). However in face to face groups feedback can only be gathered from a limited number of participants who are willing to gather together and discuss a question. But today social media encapsulates a far greater amount of ‘big data’ that represents user sentiments and feedback. This is because social media allows the opportunity to analyse data about the views of thousands of users across the world. If used strategically managers can use OCs to understand the views of their target audience and promote their message through viral marketing. Usually managers have little control over online groups since they are voluntarily formed and run by fans of a brand (Faraj et al, 2015;Moon and Sproull, 2002). Researchers suggest strategies on how managers can use such groups in furtherance of their business agenda (Shi et al, 2014; Butler et al, 2014). However, current research mainly focuses on how to use OCs in furtherance of product development and knowledge creation (Holmstrom and Henfridssen, 2006; Majchrzak et al, 2013; Yoo and Alavi, 2010) while taking as given that the present state of the group is already well understood by managers.

In this paper we explore the importance of a systemic analysis of the current state of an OC and its wider environment as a “whole” prior to an exploration of how to improve upon it. If we take into account Markus et al (2000)’s argument that an OC is a virtual organization then it is important that managers generate a good understanding of the current social landscape of an organization before intervening in it. We argue that before a manager seeks to influence, spread a message through or utilise an OC in another way h/she needs to learn about those that currently participate in the community, their roles and relationships. Relevant OCs should be continuously monitored since their makeup can change over time and managers should analyse the current constituency of an OC to maximise the output of an intervention into it. We argue that such an analysis can help managers learn about the different roles (e.g.: leaders and followers), relationships (e.g.: the use of formal and informal power) and methods of engagement in an OC. We also argue that managers should have an understanding of the underlying principles of systems thinking in order to better interpret data from online groups and assign meaning to it in light of a wider “system” within which it exists.

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