In terms of global sports, no event captures the captivating mix of raw passion and nationalistic pride quite like the World Cup. National anthems, each country's colors on their team's jerseys, the thrill of the penalty-kick shootout, flying headers into the back of the net, the screaming of "Gooooooaaaaaallllllllll" (in any language), it all adds up to a game that galvanizes the world every four years.
Amidst all the excitement, Soccer (or Football, if you're so inclined) is arguably one of the simplest sports to understand and learn how to play. The objective is simple and straightforward – put the ball into the other team's net more than they put it in yours. If you can do that, you've scored more goals and earn the victory.
As a result of Soccer's simplicity, it's often been thought that your"'value" as a Soccer player (i.e. your "talent" level) is tied directly to the number of goals you score. The typical school of thought was that 'talent' was in direct correlation to number of goals scored. Go to any youth soccer game and you'll hear questions like, "Did you score a goal?", "How many times have you scored this season?", etc. Sounds kind of like the game of Corporate America, right?
However, if you dive into the data, you'll notice that while each team puts 11 players on the field, it's usually no more than 3 players that score 90% of a team's goals. These goals are usually scored by the most forward element of the team's formation, aptly named "Attackers". If you want to drill down further, you might be amused that the players with the most goal-scoring opportunities actually occupy the 'Striker' position. In most Executives' minds, your Attackers would most closely represent your Sales Force (or 'Profit-Center', since their actions directly result in sales and top-line activity.)
But what about the other 8 players on the field (not including the Goalkeeper)? Are they not 'talented'? Are they not 'valuable'? Sure they are. It's just that we have to consider their contributions from a different perspective, right? One of the 8 is the Goalkeeper (or "Goalie"), which some would argue is the most important position on the field . . . despite the fact that Goalkeepers don't "create value" through scoring goals. 3 to 5 of the other players on the field are "Defenders" — surely, they're valuable as well. If they do their jobs, the Goalkeeper doesn't have to make saves. The more impenetrable the Defense, the better. In business-speak, Defenders might be your Customer Service or Account Management staff. They fend off Customer churn; they put out Client fires. When we think of them this way, it kind of shifts our mindset of what a 'Cost-Center' is, right?
Between the "Defenders" and the "Attackers" lies the "Midfielders" group of the formation. For the lack of a better term, they are the 'bridge' that enables a team to move from defending mode to attacking mode. In many cases, these "Midfielders" are the most unsung of heroes. They are usually great dribblers and passers, and the more skilled they are, the less the average fan notices. Why? Because they're connecting; they're transitioning; they're enabling flow. You probably see where I'm going with this – Midfielders are valuable, just not in the traditional context of determining value. Within most organizations, these players might most closely resemble Operations, Accounting, or Finance.
Until recently, it's been difficult to attribute talent and/or value to players without looking at how many goals they scored . . . and if you've read this far, you know that 'talent' and 'value' are relative concepts. So is there a better, more illuminating way? Sure there is, and it's derived through Social Network Analysis, or SNA. No, no, Social Network Analysis (SNA) is not about how large each player's Facebook friends list is (or their number of Twitter followers). Sorry for having to go there! SNA is a means of mapping out a network and what flows between it, in addition to relationships. In the case of a World Cup game, the network elements would be all of our team members (and for the purpose of this analysis, a 'goal' would be an element as well.) Take a look at the accompanying image for an idea of how we might utilize SNA to compare and contrast individual performance to team performance. The lines represents passes, or "ball flow". Looks like there's more involved than simply who is scoring the goals, right? You bet.
Now consider what it would be like if we had a way of diagramming and mapping the flow of information or knowledge through our organization. Let's say each Business Unit leader had their own perspective of what scoring a goal means to them – perhaps it's a new Enterprise-size sale, a Customer Satisfaction score of 9 or better, an Internal Rate of Return exceeding 15%, an on-time delivery rate of 97%, etc. What if we could reverse-engineer each goal and the 'flow' that enabled and supported it? Would there be value there? Absolutely. Would there be some surprises? Again, absolutely. We might learn that Larry in the Receiving Department is more than just a line-item expense attached to Operations. We might learn that he is a superb passer; he does a superb job of keeping all parties informed; he champions the flow of information from one unit to another. Without SNA, we'd have never known; Without SNA, Larry wouldn't be a new member of our HiPo Leadership program; Without SNA, Larry might have taken the call from your chief competitor because his LinkedIn profile looks pretty good. If that happened, what might happen to your 'flow'? Yep, it might grind to a halt, leading to a number of compounding issues.
Ultimately, here's the rub: Quantifying an individual's performance through basic, individual-centric statistics (i.e. Batting average in the Sports world, Service level % in Corporate America, Proficiency/Conduct scores in the Military, etc.) is misguided and all too yesteryear. Why? Because those statistics-based scoring methods (quantitative or qualitative) don't focus on how a player's (or a fellow employee's) performance impacts the team itself. Let's continue working to put those days behind us. Science and Math (via SNA) are entering us into an age where talent is less about the individual and more about team (i.e. human network) performance, but we're not just giving it the same old lip service this time around. Why? Because at a granular level, we're finally able to measure it more finely.