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Force-Directed Networks in Companies

The Balance of Attractive & Repulsive Forces

 /   / 4min read

Bird swarm

First of All: dafuq?! The question is actually quite valid! Admittedly — if you have read my previous articles, you may have already noticed — I love metaphors. It is amusing how metaphors enable to easily describe certain topics. Recently, when I proofread my master thesis, I noticed that force-directed networks can also be applied to companies and other social systems.

In a Nutshell

In case you've been wondering what force-directed networks are, I'd like to briefly outline what this is all about. We travel back a couple of years to physics lessons about forces. If not, it's not that bad, because it's basically about those forces everyone knows: attracting and repulsive forces, known by springs or magnets.

Exemplary force-directed graph

Such a network is shown in the figure above which is an excerpt of the character co-occurrence in Les Misérables. Imagine the nodes — lovingly called bobbles — as magnets of the same polarity which repulse each other and desire the maximal distance. Furthermore, imagine the lines — known as edges — as springs which attract the connected nodes. After some bouncing, the illustrated balance is achieved — the 'perfect' balance between closeness and distance. This often results in clusters of nodes, which are represented by differing colours here.

I'm glad you're making progress — are the bobbles still dancing? Billiejoe, Brandwatch

Just google force-directed networks and have a look at some animations like the animation of the graph above as well as this beauty. The dancing bobbles were a hit in my UX research.

Drawing the Edge

Forces within Company Structures

The forces mentioned above differ from those in companies and vary in their nature. First the obvious: sympathy and antipathy. Antipathy leads to have less close relationships with people you don't like, or even to avoid them completely. At the same time, there is sympathy, which strengthens connections and relationships. Thus, sympathy connects people more closely.

Well, so far this applies to the personal level rather than to corporate structures. The next aspect is the given structure such as teams, departments and other hierarchies that create indirect and direct dependencies as well as affect the network. For example, the relationships between a team leader and his team as well as between the design and engineering departments.

Thus, repulsive forces remain. However, these forces can also come up by given structures. So there are always some common interfaces, but depending on the actual hierarchy and its depth there are only few actual touch points between the individual branches. Also, some teams or departments usually have less contact with each other, e.g. the finance and design departments.

This is the usual situation in many companies and is not only human but also simply due to given structures: repulsive and attracting forces in a certain balance.

Importance of Attraction & Repulsion

This raises the question of how this balance should look like. I cannot answer this question at this point. Instead, I would like to point out two extremes which illustrate common problems. It is up to each of us to know how to tackle them.

Let's start with networks in which the attracting forces predominate and everyone is connected to (almost) everyone else. It could also be summed up as chaos. There is a lack of structure & proper shielding of certain subnetworks. This may lead to a information flow that is too high, or contrary to all expectations, too low. Why? Well, without certain structures and defined information flows, one tends to be overloaded with information coming from all directions, so that over time an isolation of individuals becomes apparent in order to escape this overload.

In contrast, networks in which the repulsive forces dominate have fewer connections between individual units and, in the worst case, more than one network emerges. For example, different departments co-exist for structural or personal reasons rather than working together on a vision and both knowledge islands & so-called silos emerge. The very limited exchange of knowledge, solving a single problem repeatedly & a missing common goal are characteristic.

Working w/o overviewing the company as a whole gave me the feeling of a black box w/ a fading collective vision.

These extremes emphasise that both forces are of importance and only work in balance. Neither one nor the other leads to efficiency which cannot be the goal.

Balancing birds

Morale of This Story

The morale of this story is known from a previous articles from another point of view. Try to prevent knowledge islands, isolation and encapsulation in order to enhance the product mindset, vision and collaboration among your employees.

But don't exaggerate! Instead, create clear interfaces & information flows, leverage the advantages of hierarchical structures and eliminate their disadvantages. Depending on your company's structure and culture, this might be the bigger challenge. Find your personal balance; it is a balancing act on several levels.

What does it look like for you? What is your opinion about my statement? Get in touch, I'd be really interested in your point. If you are up for a casual cup of tea to discuss related stuff, drop a line!


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