In the digital age of talking via tweet, the term social networks now makes people think of Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. However, according to Dr. Larry Miller, president and CEO of Activate Networks, flesh-and-blood social networks are just as critical, if not more important, than those relationships forged in cyberspace.

Speaking on the importance of social networks - the organic relationships employees form from working together - Miller said effective leaders at all levels of an organization can learn how to use social networks to lengthen their professional reach and improve their companies.

"Social networks are critical to innovation," Miller said during a webinar, adding that on a more granular level, such networks can drive success of individual business initiatives like wellness programs.

By targeting of "key" employees, those that have the most influence, employers can "map" the network to "identify the influential people within [clusters of employees] and message them," Miller said, pointing to Weight Watchers as an example of leveraging organizational dynamics between groups of friends. "If you can get behavior change in the influencers, you'll get behavior change flowing through the network."

Miller said organizational analysis is a critical function for HR professionals to have. He displayed several charts with dots representing people and lines running between various dots. The lines represented the connections between people, which can be used for messaging. "Some of it is simply introducing people, especially people that are hesitant to make connections, putting them on project teams together, and then hopefully extending that into the workplace," Miller said. "More cohesive teams tend to be more productive, if these teams stay insular they lose their verve and become less productive. If you introduce new members, they become more productive."


Food for thought

"We've always had friends, we've always had families. Social networks is not Facebook," Dr. James Fowler told an audience of health care and benefits professionals at the Care Continuum Alliance Forum 11, held last month in San Francisco.

Fowler, a professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California, San Diego, co-authored "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives" with Dr. Nicholas Christakis. Their research partly involves looking at how health behaviors are transmitted through social networks.

"Maybe [obesity] has to do with the fact that we transmit behaviors. Obese people tend to be connected to other obese people," he said. "We tend to choose to become friends with people who are like us but some of this is adopting the ideas of people we spend time with. Neighbours' BMIs [body mass index] did not correlate with one another but even friends that live hundreds of miles away had correlated BMIs."

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