What organization doesn’t want to do more to break down silos, stimulate innovation, identify hidden talent, and encourage collaboration across teams and functions?  

Introducing Organizational Network Analysis (ONA)

Achieving such innovation, collaboration, and connectivity enables an organization to leverage expertise broadly, well beyond employees’ teams and functions to improve productivity and enable the free flow of knowledge, skills, and resources across the enterprise.  

A company can break down the barriers to creating such an environment through an organizational network analysis (ONA), which captures valuable data through surveys and studies of social platforms, for example, to track and map the company’s flow of information, collaboration, and expertise sharing.  

As Professor Rob Cross, the foremost expert on ONA and co-manager with i4cp of the Connected Commons consortium, describes it: “ONA can provide an x-ray into the inner workings of an organization—a powerful means of making invisible patterns of information flow and collaboration in strategically important groups visible.”  

Michael Arena, vice president of talent and development at Amazon Webs Services and a member of i4cp and Connected Commons, describes it even more simply: “ONA provides a new lens to evaluate how people show up in an organization.”  


One example that brings to life the power of organizational network insight is the above chart, which shows the traditional, formal hierarchy that found in most organizations.  

If you were to rely on such an org chart, it wouldn’t be obvious that Mitchell—buried deep within the hierarchy—is actually a conduit for much of the work that happens, and in fact is the only central point of contact for a team of individuals. 

Meanwhile, Mares—the senior vice president, who by traditional standards should be the leader and influencer—is barely connected, indicating he is either an underutilized or not particularly valuable component of the network. 

An ONA identifies critical individuals such as Mitchell, raising such questions as: 

  1. Is Mitchell a flight risk? She may feel overloaded, and her departure would negatively affect productivity.

  2. Does Mitchell need a team? Her capabilities could be scaled exponentially with the right talent around her.

  3. Is Mitchell a bottleneck? She might be doing work that others should do, enabling her to be more effective at her primary duties.


Why companies use ONA

There are a variety of scenarios an organization can find itself in that warrants performing an ONA.

Consider, for example, the fact that strategic success depends more than ever on effective collaboration between client-facing employees and those with roles that are internal and more operational.
An ONA reveals:  

  • Where an organization is most siloed
  • Which units are collaborating well
  • Where the firm can optimally invest to improve performance through enhanced collaboration  

An ONA can also identify a range of important network roles, including: 

  • Boundary spanners who sit in the white spaces between groups or units that would otherwise not be connected
  • Central connectors who are crucial to performance and yet risk overload and burnout
  • Energizers who generate enthusiasm and a sense of purpose amongst their network 

For companies that have major changes on the horizon, an ONA aids in how leaders are truly perceived by the workforce and identifying those individuals who have the respect of their peers and can help drive change and behavior modification.  

Two obvious examples of such major change could be the company’s integration of a new acquisition, which requires building a cohesive culture—or a culture transformation initiative. Neither are easy tasks;  i4cp research shows that only 15% of organizations actually succeed at transforming their cultures, and unsuccessful mergers are often the result of poor cross-culture strategies.  

In a merger or acquisition event, ONA can help identify boundary spanners who understand both cultures, understand who influential people are on both sides of the organization, and can be engaged to act as leaders for the transition. 

How to get started with ONA

Jean Singer, principal at Collaborative Analytics, and Peter Gray, professor of commerce at the University of Virginia, provide a framework for successfully managing an ONA as a part of the network analytics virtual course offered by the Connected Commons.   

The model Singer and Gray have outlined consists of four stages:  

  1. Laying the groundwork (assembling a team, defining goals)
  2. Designing a study and executing it (developing a communication and response rate strategy, for instance)
  3. Analysis and report generation (network maps, metrics)
  4. Communicating ONA results and recommendations

“Getting leaders engaged is the last part of your process,” says Singer. “In some ways you’re kicking off a next phase, which is the transition to action—changing behaviors in the organization in some way, based on what you’ve learned through your ONA. And that’s a really critical phase.” 

Before transitioning to the action phase, however, a firm must complete a host of steps to ensure success, such as tying an ONA to a larger, existing strategic initiative, engaging a team of change experts to help carry out the initiative, and communicating to stakeholders an understanding of what an ONA is and why you’re conducting one.  

ONA in action at the World Bank

Washington, D.C.-based financial institution World Bank opted to conduct an ONA to pinpoint where experts and influencers were within the organization—geographically and in what functions—and better connect them with those in need of their expertise.  

The bank’s mission is to end world poverty by helping countries build infrastructure—airports or water treatment systems, for instance. The organization’s leaders realized they needed to do more in terms of harnessing technical expertise across disparate parts of the globe so that hard-won knowledge generated in one context could help build success across all its other projects.  

The problem, as Singer explains, was that World Bank engineers and technical experts were dispersed all over the globe and tended to apply their deep expertise locally.  

“They had a great collaborative spirit in the organization, but people just didn’t know who the experts were in a given subject area. These issues were particularly acute between client-facing staff and WB headquarters. There was kind of a disconnect between those two areas. 

An ONA was just one piece of the puzzle, but it helped identify the most critical areas [in terms of] building bridges across regions and headquarters,” says Singer. 


Boiled down to its essence, an ONA is a tool to find opportunities for improving collaboration.
Singer and Gray recommend using diagrams or other short, concise tools to help explain to the workforce what an ONA is, why it’s necessary, and outline what an ONA finds.    

Organizational network analyses use methods such as surveys, for instance, to collect information about connections among individuals and groups throughout the organization, which generate visual representations of the relationships of those connections for identifying and evaluating patterns.  

Says Gray: “We’ve all seen rise of analytics and decision making, especially in areas like customer analytics, customer behaviors. An ONA is a fantastic tool for people analytics groups to help understand and quantify some things that have traditionally been thought of as too soft to measure—trust, relationships, energy, collaboration, and so on. We can boil these things into hard metrics and measure them.”

Are you considering conducting an organizational network analysis project? Contact us for a research briefing and to discuss recommended next steps.