How work actually gets done inside an organization can be a mystery even in the best of times. Add in the rapid move to remote work and virtual collaboration spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and it becomes even more so. Conducting an organizational network analysis can lift the curtain, uncovering potential vulnerabilities and ways to boost productivity and employee well-being. 

Organizational network analysis, or ONA, is a process to gather data on how groups collaborate and how information is shared across an organization. That can lead to a better understanding of performance, learning and innovation and help "de-layer overloaded roles or people," according to Rob Cross, a professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. The current emphasis on managing remote teams makes this an ideal time to conduct an ONA.

“Being able to see the patterns of connectivity within groups really helps a leader make more targeted decisions to improve group effectiveness than simply holding more Zoom calls or virtual happy hours,” said Cross, who consults with organizations to administer ONAs. “Leaders are able to see how and where to pull people into work and connections as well as where people are getting overwhelmed or where silos might exist.”

According to Cross, common applications for ONA include:

  • During a merger or acquisition.
  • New product development or innovation initiatives.
  • Organizational change and cultural change efforts.
  • Analyzing team effectiveness.
  • Organizational design.

Consultants and Vendors: Choices for Conducting ONA

Josh Bersin, author and global industry analyst at Josh Bersin Academywrote in a blog post that ONA can be implemented by a consultant or using vendor tools to identify "who is talking with who." Common methods include surveys, systems that monitor email traffic and "more complex applications that look at all types of communication (email, text messages, feedback, conversations)."

According to Bersin, consulting firms like Deloitte and McKinsey conduct ONAs and products such as Microsoft Workplace Analytics, TrustSphere, KeenCorp and have tools that help. "The discipline has been studied for many years," Bersin wrote, citing LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and New York Times as having gone through an ONA to "understand how different affinity groups communicate, cluster, and compare with each other."

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What Kinds of Organizations Benefit from ONA?

ONA is possible for any size of organization but success depends on what it is being used for, according to Srinivas Krishnamurti, vice president of product at Culture Amp, an employee feedback software platform. "We use ONA to compute who works with whom so that the system could ask the right people for feedback about an individual and this use of ONA applies to any size organization where work is getting done with cross-functional teams,” he said.

ONA is particularly useful when leaders want to make sure there is strong emotional support and connectedness among their people, according to Guibert Englebienne, chief technology officer and co-founder of software company Globant. For smaller organizations, he said, leaders sometimes believe they have a pulse on employee engagement without needing to rely on additional data and analytics. That's a mistake, particularly in a time of rapid change like now.

"The insights that data brings are necessary to complement our perceptions of what is going on in the organization, especially in the cases where we may be overly confident in our perceptions of employee connection and overlook the more critical challenges," Englebienne said.

Government Use Case Leads to Productivity Insight

In 2010, Washington State University conducted an ONA for two networks in the Washington State Department of Transportation. The analysis showed people were generally happy with how co-workers in their network provided information to help them get their work done. The analysis also found:

  • Each network (network A had 60 people; network B had 84) could benefit from identifying functions and members more explicitly through resources such as a SharePoint site.
  • Networks should develop communities of practice in core strategic functions.
  • Each network would benefit from personal interviews with workers, regardless if they were rated effective and ineffective.
  • If three key members left Network A more than 20% of connectivity would be lost.
  • The six most connected individuals represented about 18% of all network connections but if these individuals left no network holes would result.

According to Washington State University researchers, ONA can answer many important questions about networks, such as:

  • How cohesive is the network?
  • Do hierarchy, formal structure or functional group silos limit information sharing amongst employees?
  • How well do employees know the expertise of others in the network and how accessible is that expertise?
  • Which employees function as bottlenecks and which are acting as agents?
  • Are some members of the network overly connected? Are others not connected enough?
  • Is there potential for dramatic knowledge loss and network fracturing if a handful of people leave?

"Possessing the ability to answer these questions will greatly increase a manager’s productivity when trying to create a more productive organization," researchers wrote.

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Data Collection and Analysis Are Key Pillars of ONA

How is ONA done? Simply put, through data collection and analysis. Washington State researchers conducted surveys that asked people to:

  • Rate the office environment and cultural values, including questions about innovation and change, empowerment of employees to act, participation and open discussion, and predictable performance outcomes.
  • List their personal network of up to 15 people they turn to for information, the degree to which they collaborate and the benefits to the respondent from this person.
  • Views on their interactions with the network as a whole and the behaviors that energize workers.
  • Identify if they worked with individuals from a pre-determined list and how effective their interactions were.

From there, researchers analyzed survey data, compared the results to previous measures and scored employees based on who came to that employee for information on network tasks and how effectively they responded.

Identify the Business Problem You're Trying to Solve

Englebienne of Globant said a key step for ONA, much like for any other analysis, is knowing the business question you want to answer.

Learning Opportunities

"If effective collaboration between departments is key for business continuity, making sure people across departments have strong relationships is critical," he said. "Another question could be whether or not your inclusion efforts are still effective. This could be evaluated by measuring cross-team collaboration across areas, genders, generations, and so on."

When building out an ONA plan, it’s also important to think about how data can be leveraged beyond helping leadership make organization-wide decisions. "Getting the insights and recommendations directly into the hands of employees will help empower them to create connections that can improve their own well-being and career growth," Englebienne said.

Related Article: Employee Data Surge Means Increased Privacy Risks

Krishnamurti of Culture Amp said he was part of an organization of 7,000 employees that conducted an ONA to discover connectors across the organization and how work got done. The resulting social graph showed seven or eight particular groups where people only talked amongst themselves.

"We also found two or three connectors that everybody went to if they needed something," Krishnamurti said. "It highlighted for us that we were not collaborating well across these groups. More importantly, if anything happens to these connectors, things would fall apart, essentially."

Krishnamurti also said he’s seen ONA used to track employee physical movements, monitor tone and employee sentiment in company meetings, and discover email communication patterns. Of course, companies have to weigh the consequences of tracking on employee privacy

Addressing Organizational Culture Challenges

Onboarding is another area where ONA can help, shortening the period it takes employees to reach peak productivity. It typically takes three to five years for a new employee to achieve the same level of connection as high performers, according to Cross. Further, ONA can help managers bridge silos, especially points where greater collaboration can yield scale or innovation benefit.

ONA can also be an ongoing management tool for measuring changes in connectivity over shorter periods of time, particularly useful as a large number of employees now work from home. "Many organizations have physically adjusted to teleworking but research is showing us that workers are still going through unique challenges at home over time," Englebienne said. “Measuring workplace connectivity and relationships on an ongoing basis can help organizations understand the well being of their employees, not just their productivity."

Globant was able to identify groups of individuals who are emotionally disconnected and predict those likely to disconnect again in the future. That information allows the company to better understand the challenges team members face and provide them with support tailored to their needs, Englebienne said.

Conducting an ONA can also help make sure organizational culture is inclusive, even while many or all employees are remote.

"There can be a natural tendency for people to associate with those similar to themselves, and it’s more challenging to see during the times when everyone is working remotely," Englebienne said. "ONA has helped us make sure we continue to have a diverse and inclusive workplace during times of challenge and increasing change."