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What is Organizational Network Analysis? And How Does it Benefit Companies?

In every organization there are go-to people who make everything work.

They are the subject matter experts, the influencers, the energizers—the people the company can least afford to lose. Yet, ask senior leaders who those people are, and research shows they can’t identify the majority of them. That’s because they are often buried in the hierarchy, adding tremendous value without recognition, and surprisingly are often introverts, not extroverts. 

How do you uncover and leverage these hidden superstars? 

Introducing Organizational Network Analysis (ONA)

A company can identify its true influencers and energizers through an organizational network analysis (ONA), which tracks and maps day-to-day workflow, collaboration, and expertise sharing enterprisewide.

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 Web 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.”


The chart above brings to life the power of organizational network insight, which shows the traditional formal hierarchy that is found in most organizations versus the way work really happens: through a network structure.   

If you were to rely on a traditional organization 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 expert or not a particularly valuable contributor to the network. The network chart also highlights that an entire department (Production) mainly collaborates in a silo and not with the rest of the organization—a common problem in most companies. 

Conducting an ONA will identify critical individuals such as Mitchell, raising questions such 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 now?

If it wasn’t already, connectivity should now be at the center of your talent strategy. Following the pandemic and the necessity of remote work, we can all more readily appreciate the critical role workforce connectivity plays in productivity, well-being, culture renovation®, innovation, execution, and agility.

As organizations and individuals contemplate new ways of working, effectively leveraging a more distributed, decentralized, and digital workforce will separate the high-performers from those that struggle in the new normal.  

In this context, proactively ensuring and enabling positive and productive connections has become central to strategic talent management, and will increasingly become critical to retaining key talent. 

Why companies use ONA

There are a variety of scenarios that warrant  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. Companies use ONA to optimize operational efficiency by illuminating where an organization is most siloed. They use ONA in onboarding new employees to monitor the breadth of connections to others in the organization, which is often a key component of success or failure in year one. They also use ONA after an acquisition to gauge the strength of integration by examining the collaboration between business units. 

Organizations use ONA to help 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 networks.

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

How companies use ONA

Companies put ONA into action to address a variety of specific challenges. Here are a few examples: 

  • Promoting rapid innovation: At its core, ONA visualizes collaboration—how communication flows within groups, across groups, and throughout organizations—and the ways in which work and ideas are exchanged or stifled. With the data resulting from ONA, organizations can spark innovation by removing silos, combining expertise, and accelerating decision-making.
  • Introducing new leaders: ONAs can provide new leaders with critical insights about the organization, the department, or the team they are now leading. It can also inform them about the people they’ll need to turn to and visualize how work flows internally.
  • Driving diversity, equity, and inclusion: Conducting an ONA project can readily expose issues of isolation—employees who aren’t well connected in their networks may be underutilized or at risk of departure. When juxtaposed against race, gender, identity, ability, or other demographics, troubling patterns—and opportunities—can emerge.
  • Improving employee well-being: Well-being programs often focus on physical and mental health, but rarely attempt to address major stressors at work such as collaborative overload, which ONA is uniquely positioned to identify. Employees who are frequently tapped for their expertise by colleagues may feel overloaded and burned out by the number of incoming requests they receive. Identifying these individuals and scenarios early can not only have a positive impact on their well-being, but also mitigate turnover risk.
  • Leading a culture renovation: Companies spend a tremendous amount of time and effort attempting to change culture, yet i4cp research shows that only 15% actually succeed. Often, it’s because companies don’t take the time to properly identify influencers, energizers, and blockers within their workforce. By pinpointing who these key connectors are early in the process, the culture change team can build support through influencers—who may not be obvious functional leaders—and work to win over or, in some cases, work around potential naysayers.
  • Managing a merger or acquisition: Unsuccessful acquisitions are often the result of poor cross-culture strategies. ONA can help identify boundary spanners who effectively operate in both cultures, identify the influential people within both organizations, and can be engaged to act as leaders for the transition. 

How to get started with ONA

We offer multiple ways to get started quickly with organizational network analysis and the network principles of ONA through the Connected Commons: 

  • Agility Accelerator: This rapid ONA platform quickly visualizes and analyzes communication and collaboration, provides insights about workflows within your team, group, or department, and most importantly offers research-based recommendations to implement immediate improvements. Agility Accelerator allows any business leader to deploy and analyze results in as little as a week, with no technical or analytical expertise required.
  • Custom ONA projects: To collect and analyze larger data sets—such as an entire workforce or region—we will construct a custom organizational network analysis project to fit your needs, providing the tools and resources to deploy, analyze, and act on the data.
  • Connected Commons membership: Join a consortium of cutting-edge organizations to access virtual classes on how to conduct ONA and participate in workshops and meetings to advance and apply network analysis principles. Connected Commons access is available through i4cp membership. 

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