Understanding how social networks affect team performance
Dr Paul Oliver - Oliver & Thompson Consultancy, and Dr Dean Lusher - Swinburne University, talk about how social networks affect team performance in sport.
Dr Paul Oliver: Who would have thought a person striving to educate around racism in sport and inclusion in sport could be born in Cronulla but it’s true - it’s true and what are the odds of two speakers coming to the conference speaking together - one a lifetime Cronulla supporter, one a lifetime Bulldogs supporter - could you see the smiles on our faces?
Firstly, thanks a lot for coming. It’s so good to see so many people that I know in this area coming to share in the same room together and particularly knowing some of the fantastic work that everyone does that I know about that but the next person that I work with doesn’t know about the excellent work they do so pretty much today was all about that of these organisations that have put in together and the people that have done all that hard work of trying to just get you to match-make in the same room to try and share some of these things. So a lot of the examples you will hear about are focused on some of the big sports, the big four or five sports. It’s good and you get a lot of traction from those with the big sports and they often have money or staff to do these things but for me it’s sharing that with the 50/70 other different sports that are out there - the volleyballs and the hockeys and the triathlons - those sort of things that don’t have the resources; the touch footballs, those sorts of things that if you share these things they’re not starting from the start with their own things. They can try and learn a lot of lessons that have been made from some of the bigger sports and some of the funding that they get into those.
Today is a bit of a different left field one for me. I mean I engage through my work with the Australian Paralympic Committee and the Human Rights Commission and my own consultancy around the whole gamut of inclusion issues and diversity issues and a lot of that works around knowing all the negative stuff in sport and the challenges. The fun part for me is trying to find or work on solutions to a lot of those different areas and this is one that yeah, I’m quite excited about that I can see solutions for sport in it as well. It goes to social network analysis and Dean will talk a bit more. He’s a world-renowned expert around social network analysis but basically I was the PhD student for Dean and Shaun Gorman who did a lot of the work with the AFL Players Association around Kelly’s work that she did before.
Dean and Shaun were reviewing the AFL’s Real 30 or Real 35 now around race religious vilification and as part of that they interviewed and you’ll get into it when he talks a bit later but they interviewed around nine or so AFL clubs; all the players, coaches and the interviews were to bring out - there’s a lot of data in sport now around performance and metrics and passes and meters run - all that side of things to get a win or performance. This was aimed at finding views around what another player thinks of racism or what are their thoughts on an Indigenous player playing beside them; trust issues around those things, friendship issues, cohesion issues in a team.
They didn’t only look at that, they looked and asked questions around masculinity and what is a real man and that brought out issues around sexism in sport and asked questions around homophobia as well so when we know a team we know the person beside us that they can pass, that they can do this or they’re trustworthy - this, that or the other but this through social network analysis and Dean will show through the graphs and images that it shows, through asking those questions and particularly around those social issues you might have a team-mate that you get on with well, you can run and pass that with well but you might have totally different attitudes, social attitudes to that person and that can affect the whole cohesion and trust in a team and it goes back to some of these key questions.
So why do some sports teams - you think they’ve got all the best players there but they continually underperform. Who determines the culture at the club and that was a big part of the research they did as well. You’ve got these people. If they’ve got predominant views these players or coaches in these particular areas around racism or sexism, those type of things does that determine then the whole culture of the club around these things and if it does is that a positive or negative thing and in most cases Dean will show that having different views and splits around all those different issues led to uncohesive clubs and the exciting thing when seeing Dean and Shaun’s Paper out of this you could see from the graphs that the tighter clubs and networks around all these things actually related to performance as well so it came back to that earlier talk and question that we were going on with that does it have to be performance which a lot of clubs will say, “That’s what we’re in the game for for winning. Nice to do this stuff but essentially our members want a premiership out of this stuff”.
This to me was exciting because it showed that nexus that you can have both. In fact not even that you can have both but you need to have that trust and cohesion around a lot of these issues to be able to be a good performing team.
I don’t think we can answer that bottom one - why didn’t Cronulla Sharks and Western Bulldogs win this season although well, I mean if you did a lot of things like that and did the graphs and I won’t answer for it but you could probably see that this year they were a lot tighter and uniform in a lot of those different areas.
I’ll flick over to Dean and he can explain a little bit more about the details around social network analysis but the aspect that excited me with this as well is with some of the graphs you could see players or views to Indigenous players and on the graph would show this tight circle of all players in a team, the 20/24 players and the Indigenous players would be way on the periphery and to me that goes to a whole range of issues. Is education working on these things if we do so many programs? Player welfare and mental health - those sort of things if you do have a young Indigenous kid who’s come down from the country and that’s where he’s situated in the team so yeah, really exciting on a whole range of levels but I will pass over to the expert on it now.
Dr Dean Lusher: Thanks very much Paul. I believe we’ve all seen some sort of network diagram over time and these things are part of our everyday life and we use them in social media and a whole range of things but I guess we’re interested in particularly how networks might work within football clubs.
I’m also doing some work with Ramon and Ruth who spoke earlier today about community sporting clubs as well. How are people connected within those organisations? How might we understand how an organisation like a sporting club - how people feel included and I think this provides us with very visual ways of understanding clubs and in this particular case we have an AFL club here where we’ve gone in and we’ve basically surveyed all the players within the team about who do you trust or who do you hang around with after hours? Who are the people that you might have differences of opinion with and we were able to map these out for clubs and understand them so beyond just drawing pictures we specialise in doing statistical models on these things. We can do some fairly complex analysis to try and understand what is it about these networks? Why do people hang around with one another? What are the social rules that are going on within this organisation and in some of the work that we’ve done we’ve been able to tie that into the performance of the club I think which is quite important but also there are a whole range of issues so we recently published this book which is a long project and we did that with the AFL Players Association as well with Kelly, the AFL, the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship and the Australian Research Council and I guess we were asking the question when you bring in a rule like Rule 35 from the top down that says, “You can’t vilify people based upon a whole range of factors” does that actually change people’s views about the world or do they just realise “I just need to be quiet about these issues” so is there a fundamental change to people or is it just an on the surface type thing?
I guess what we found was for the 100 people that we interviewed and the 390 people we surveyed, this idea of vilifying people - direct vilification on the field was deemed completely unacceptable by everybody within that context which we thought was a terrific thing and that’s a big change from what was happening not even 21 or 25 years ago on the field but issues of more casual racism of blurred areas were a little less understood by players so we had interviews. We also had a network analysis to help us understand this.
Now I guess in this situation here we’ve got these square black dots within teams and they represent what would be the leadership group players within a team so each dot represents a player and the lines represent basically who you think sets the culture in this team so you could choose as many people as you want and what we find here is that in our top four team all of those people who are in the leadership group are also those people that the players say, “Yeah, they’re the people who set the culture of this team”.
Now if you compare that to our bottom four team we’ve got these leadership group players; two of them are in the middle, two of them are on the side - there’s no real stars. These other people in the middle are just choosing everyone. “Yeah, we all set the culture here” which is a common thing but it’s a very different picture. Here you have the overlap between what’s formal and informal influences in the team and it’s the complete opposite over here.
Just highlighting those so if we look at diversity management so we went into eight clubs and here again is who sets the culture within your team and there’s a chair that I didn’t see. Okay, so here the black dots represent Indigenous players in the team and the white dots are non-Indigenous players and in eight of the nine clubs that we looked at the Indigenous players are on the periphery of who sets the culture within these teams so why this overt racism of “You can’t say that to people” and so forth, we’re starting to think well where are the voices of Indigenous players within this team? There was only one club where these central people had an Indigenous player within that club so it just says to us, “Yes, things have progressed a long way. There have been a lot of changes but there’s still a lot of subtleties, a lot of things around the edges where there’s room for improvement” and I might flick it back to Paul.
Dr Paul Oliver: I guess the question on all this - yeah, nice graphs. Academic - where does this help us with sport? When I did my PhD research I interviewed around 40 different sports or people from sports from National, State to local level and asked them about culture in sport and to a person they said, “Look ask us five years ago whether culture was important to us” and they said, “We barely heard of the term in sport” but to a person when I did my research they all said “Culture is one of the biggest things we talk about these days in our sport, in our club, in our organisation but yeah, how we go about that or how we address it is the issue” and I guess this hopefully or this to me opened my eyes and I thought well, yeah this could be a way we get to the culture of an organisation to see the leadership and it doesn’t just have to be used for a football club. This could be used for sporting administration as well with the leadership or where the different attitudes are within the organisation and how it helps trust and cohesion as well.
Dean has used it with organisations like Boeing as well around their leadership structures and those sort of things so it was just to put it out to you today. That’s what Dean is working on for his Swinburne. He’s brought it into that sporting arena just to show you of some of the applications it might have to be able to effect in that area.
Thanks very much.