Network hero.jpg

How to Leverage Organizational Network Insights Without Conducting an ONA

“I’m a huge advocate of organizational network analysis (ONA), but even I have a hard time selling it internally.”

That paraphrases a senior-level talent and analytics leader on why, despite growing popularity, ONA is utilized by only a handful of organizations.

The good news is that not only does ONA work—research by i4cp and Rob Cross has revealed a strong correlation between market performance and conducting network analysis to identify information flow and bottlenecks. And high-performance organizations are 7x more likely to conduct ONA. But there are ways to derive critical insights about the way your workforce operates without conducting an ONA.

What is ONA, and why should I care?

Organizational network analysis has been around for years, but interest in the analytical technique is at an all-time high due to increasing emphasis on collaboration and urgency set by the need for organizations to react quickly in today’s fast-evolving business climate.

ONA provides an x-ray into the inner workings of an organization—a means of making invisible patterns of information flow and collaboration in strategically important groups visible. In the simplest terms, ONA seeks to reveal the informal network relationships within an organization—how work gets done—rather than focus on formal reporting structures.

Identifying these patterns can help leaders better understand how to drive organizational agility and innovation, and also pinpoint holdups in workflow and overloaded employees—often top talent who are at risk of leaving.

Interest high, readiness low

Heightened interest in ONA is also being driven by a dynamic and growing set of technology platform vendors with significant marketing budgets promising to simplify ONA. Install it, turn it on, and off you go with powerful network analytics to change the way you work.

As is often the case, reality is more complicated.

These passive ONA technologies, which are typically based on ongoing meta-data analysis of employee email and calendar data, can pick up false-signals as they tend to focus on the volume of e-mail between parties vs. the quality or context of e-mail collaboration; how do you account for e-mails about social plans between friendly colleagues, or bureaucratic e-mail chains involving travel expense approvals?

Active, or survey-based ONA is a technique that can be learned and utilized without consultants, privacy issues, or costly technology solutions. It does require some commitment of time to develop the internal capability to do so however. So, while interest in ONA is higher than it’s ever been, readiness to incorporate the practice (or the technology) into developing people analytics functions is still relatively low.

ONA is indeed a very powerful and strategic management tool to drive change initiatives, inform critical talent and org design decision making, measure inclusion, and identify hidden top talent. Much of its power, however, rests in how ONA insights are leveraged at the individual level. Specifically, how do you help the individual people who are isolated on the fringes of the network, or those at the center of the network who are overwhelmed by incoming collaboration requests?

In fact, a best practice associated with active ONA projects is to directly help employees understand the strengths and opportunities associated with their own position in the network, and how to optimize their position/role in the network for their personal success as well as the organization’s.

ONA without the ONA

Herein lies a key opportunity for HR leaders. There are a number of universal research insights that can inform both individual and enterprise people practices without conducting an ONA.

Much of the ONA work that’s been done over the last 20+ years has been done by researchers such as Professor Rob Cross, considered by many a pioneer, if not the father of this field of study. This research combines network data (where people sit in a network, how many incoming ties they have, etc.) with individual performance data from the participating companies. As a result, direct links have been established between specific behaviors or collaborative practices, and individual performance/success.

Examples of these core insights include:

  • Network diversity drives success, engagement, innovation and agility. Cross’s research has found that the most successful and innovative people leverage their diverse networks early in the problem-solving process. When challenges land on these peoples’ desks, they engage their network to understand and frame the problem and end up more successful and creative in their efforts to address it.
  • When it comes to the size of networks and the number of “incoming ties” (people   designate one person as a collaborator critical to getting their work done), there is an optimal range. The research shows there is a sweet spot, or zone of efficiency, between collaborative overload and network insularity. Efficient collaboration is important to both individual engagement and effectiveness, as well as overall organization effectiveness/performance. 

How network insights are being applied to talent strategies

What can an organization do with these insights? The simple answer is to develop talent strategy and design people processes with the insights in mind. For the savvy researcher or sleuth, this can be done with publicly available research.

This design and development work can also be facilitated and accelerated through formal access to the community of companies and practitioners doing this research and applying these insights in various ways. The Connected Commons, which is co-managed by i4cp and Professor Rob Cross, is a consortium of such companies and practitioners.

The Connected Commons is not an ONA vendor, but rather a learning community committed to advancing this field of study through application of the research insights within the member companies.

The collaboration between social network science researchers and senior talent and analytics leaders from companies both large and small has resulted in the ongoing development of practical, easy-to-deploy case studies and tools that illustrate or leverage the research insights. Examples include:

  • Leadership Development: Cigna collaborated with Connected Commons to develop a virtual leadership development course based on the extensive research that has been done on how an individual leader’s network practices drive success personally, for their teams, and their organizations. It features an online multi-rater assessment tool as well as a 5-module virtual course and other online learning features. This course is now available to all Connected Commons members to deploy at will in their organizations.
  • Onboarding: Booz Allen Hamilton worked with the Commons to develop a virtual onboarding course based on the specific networking practices the research has shown to impact retention and engagement in the first five years. This course was just recently made available to all Commons members.                  
  • Collaborative overload: overload is a real and growing problem for people and organizations. It’s a leading indicator of attrition risk, a source of inefficiency, and a barrier to innovation and agility. The Connected Commons has developed an online assessment that shows how individuals compare to efficiency and effectiveness benchmarks and what they can do to get back 18-24% of their time. The assessment includes peer and team feedback options to facilitate this work in team or division contexts. Card decks have also been created to make the insights more accessible and facilitate self-assessment. Member companies such as Ford and GE are using these tools at various levels with great success.

The Connected Commons teaches members companies how to conduct ONA using low-cost open-source software products, but increasing ONA readiness/capability is only part of the solution. Whether you are interested in ONA as a strategic management tool or not, the community offers ample and applicable research insights that can be incorporated into existing talent strategies and people practices.

Shifting from what Cross refers to as an “atomistic view of talent” to a network perspective, and to a greater curiosity about the increasing collaborative intensity of work, is an important evolution for organizations to make to ensure maximum agility. Happily, getting started doesn’t require a massive investment in ONA—but rather an understanding of the research and tools available.