Friday, October 21, 2016

Using Social Network Analysis to enhance Navy Advancement Decisions and Evaluate Communication and Command Climate

(I will be unable to do this project during the second half module)

Introduction/ Background

The US Navy has been searching for innovative ways to modernize its sailors’ career progressions, including its advancement process, to be more valuable and attractive to the new millennial generation. In recent years, several unpopular force-shaping tools have been used to shave the force based on formulaic points based performance metrics, but the Navy’s promotion system still relies heavily on traditional advancement factors such as time in rate, performance on advancement exams, awards, and wait-in-line rankings on performance evaluations. A sailor’s evaluations and awards are largely a function of when the sailor checked onboard, where they are in the advancement cycle, and when they are scheduled to rotate to their next tour of duty. As long as a sailor performs up to par, they can expect to start at a low ranking for their first evaluation cycle, move up to a middle rank as time goes by, and transfer with a high ranking. Sailors close to promotion boards are often given the highest rankings by sheer virtue of the fact that they need these rankings to advance. Of course, if a sailor does something to deserve a lower ranking, such as performing poorly or getting in trouble with the law, they can receive a lower ranking which will make it very difficult for them to advance. The theory is that the Navy has to “grow their own”, and therefore, everyone gets an equal shot with rising evaluations unless they do something to deserve being lowered. Aside from doing something to deserve a lower ranking, there can be very little room to leap-frog the promotion system or distinguish oneself in a positive light other than a short qualitative write-up which only comes into play when advancing to a senior management level (Chief or LCDR). The norm is that sailors wait in turn to receive their #1 ranking and award.

This form of evaluation and promotion can be extremely frustrating to young sailors, officer and enlisted, who are typically very competitive and would like to receive the top rank if they legitimately outperform their peers, instead of being ranked largely on their time onboard and order in the promotion cycle.  As the Navy continues to modernize its advancement techniques, officials may begin to look at more performance based advancement to reflect a private sector model. One way to begin to incorporate performance based metrics is by letting sailors identify their own top performers. Naturally, as in any other organization, there are always some sailors who are known throughout the ship as “go-to” sailors who stand out as leaders and high performers regardless of their rank, positional authority or time onboard. These are the leaders the Navy should be promoting and incentivizing to stick around. Failing to recognize these leaders in a timely manner could lead to disgruntled sailors, a drop in work ethic, or an overall acceptance that hard work is only rewarded to the degree that you maintain your spot in line for advancement.

The organizational structure on a US Navy ship is very hierarchical, similar what one might find in a large corporation, except more rigid in many aspects. Ship functions are divided into various departments such as Operations, Logistics, Engineering, Weapons Systems, Navigation, and more depending on the class of ship. Each department has a department head, as well as division officers and chiefs, and a workforce of specialized sailors. At the top of the org chart is the Captain and Executive Officer, who manage the Department heads and are overall responsible for the ship.

Conducting a social network analysis to draw out sailors’ true perceptions of top performers, free of these rigid chain of command and timing structures, can be a very valuable way of identifying true leaders onboard, and a way to enhance advancement decisions. Additionally, it can offer important whole-ship network insights into communication patterns, interoperability, and command climate.


The hypothesis tested by doing such a social network analysis would be that the true leaders onboard a ship are not necessarily those with rank and positional authority. By determining who the true leaders onboard are, more accurate rankings and appropriate promotion schedules can be used to keep the top sailors around.

Research Questions and Data Collection:

In order to test this hypothesis, a series of questions can be posed to the crew, asking them to identify factors of helpfulness, performance, and mentorship among their shipmates (providing a list of all crewmembers):

1.       (Please select YOUR name)

2.       Based on your experience over the past year, please rank your shipmates’ overall job performance: outstanding performer, good performer, satisfactory performer, unsatisfactory performer, severely deficient performer, I don’t know this person

3.       Based on your experience over the past year, please rank your shipmates’ helpfulness in accomplishing your job: extremely helpful, helpful, neither helpful or unhelpful, unhelpful, very unhelpful, I don’t know this person

4.       Based on your experience over the past year, please identify up to three shipmates who you have gone to for mentoring.

5.       Based on your experience when you first checked onboard the ship, please rank your shipmates’ helpfulness in helping you adjust to the ship: extremely helpful, helpful, neither helpful or unhelpful, unhelpful, very unhelpful, I don’t know this person

Additionally, in order to tease out information that may be impacting the results, such as work proximity and informal friendship networks, the following questions could be asked:

1.       Based on your experience over the past year, please identify your personal connection with your shipmates: We are close friends, we are friends, we are acquaintances, we dislike each other, we dislike each other very much, I don’t know this person.

2.       Based on your experience over the past year, please identify your professional connection with your shipmates: We work together very often, we work together often, we work together sometimes, we don’t work together very often, We almost never work together, I don’t know this person.

Data Collection and Attributes:

While these questions could be used to create the initial network maps in UCINET and get a good understanding of who the leaders are, identifying attributes for these sailors would also be very useful in identifying patterns. Do women tend to be natural leaders? How about engineers? Are supply personnel the most popular on the ship, and are medical professionals perceived as being the top performers? Do Supply and Engineering work together effectively? Are females being marginalized? In order to tease out some of these relationships, the following attributes can be collected in the survey as well:

Attributes: Rank, Time in rank, years onboard, Male/female, Race/ethnicity, religion, Age, Department, Specialization

Analyzing the network:

The basic network would be built off of the five questions above where the sailors identify factors of helpfulness, performance, and mentorship among their shipmates. Additional professional and friendship networks can be viewed as well.

From these network questions alone, a general network can be drawn, and numbers of ties can be seen. An initial intuition of who the leaders are can be gained from looking at number of ties identified as outstanding performers, extremely helpful, or turned to for mentorship.

Classic centrality measures can also be employed to see which sailors have high closeness and betweenness, and which act as bridges to different parts of the network.

Eigenvector can be looked at to determine classic “high level leaders.” As this would be a valued, directional dataset, further analysis could reveal the presence of “sinks” and “broadcasters”, and personnel with high potential.

While this data alone may be enough to quantify a ranking to incorporate in individual sailor advancements, adding in the attribute dataset would allow for far more interesting analysis. In fact, it may be necessary to add in this attribute dataset to compare “similar” sailors (those of the same rank, or those in the same specialty or department), as opposed to viewing their overall leadership within the ship as a whole.

Adding in attributes would allow the analyst to see which sailors serve as bridges to other parts of the ship (other departments, other ranks, other age groups etc.). Additionally, it could help determine if the high ranking officials (officers, chiefs, etc) are actually perceived as the leaders on the ship, or if their actual leadership is not up to the expected level for the positional authority they’ve been given (or perhaps they’re not being given enough responsibility!)

Further analysis could also help determine command climate. Is homophilly occurring: do all the females tend to group together, or are members of a certain racial or religious group being ostracized? While some degree of homophily may be expected (friendship networks would be expected to remain within rank structures due to the Navy’s fraternization policy), this SNA can be a great informal and indirect way to draw out command climate or diversity problems without formally addressing equal opportunity.  


The outcomes of the analysis could be useful on a number of levels. Not only could they provide a more appropriate means for evaluating advancement decisions and rewarding/incentivizing the right sailors to stay Navy, but they could also provide very useful insights into subgroups and cliques forming within the ship, and how well the departments are communicating with one another. This would be very easily actionable information for any officer or chief, but particularly the Captain and executive officer. When trying to determine where communications breakdowns or breakdowns in leadership are occurring, consulting a SNA such as this could offer some major hints as to where the issues are within top leadership, and how communications or working relationships are breaking down. Without a formal measurement tool such as a SNA, a lot of these concepts would be left largely to perception of the formal leadership hierarchy, which can be tainted by any number of biases.

Of course, the SNA would only be as good as the data collected: limitations would exist for non-responses, or responses from people who wish to remain anonymous or do not wish to provide attribute data such as gender or race. There would probably be an initial concern for being identified by the analyst or ship’s officers and judged for how they made ranking decisions. For example, if someone is the only Hispanic female First Class Petty Officer onboard, she may feel the attribute data will automatically identify them, and that may impact the way she ranks the performance of her department head. However, with effective privacy and procedural controls in place, this could end up being a very useful tool for sailor advancement, ship communication and interoperability, and command climate.

1 comment:

Christopher Tunnard said...

This is a great idea (the network effect on promotion,) and is doubtless inspired by personal experience. You lay out the case for doing so cogently and clearly, and you have a good grasp of SNA measures and their potential meanings in this type of organization. Of course, the main problem would be getting people to fill out the questionnaire (Step 1) and getting truthful responses (Step 2.) The fear of identification and (potential) retribution would need to be addressed and resolved, somehow. The results would also be extremely controversial in some cases. Fascinating--may we both live long enough to see this kind of candor welcomed--and utilized.