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How “invisible patterns” can be game-changing for 21st-century organisations

Organisational network analysis (ONA) can present organisations with data that shows the relationships and influence of people in your organisation. Learn more about ONA – what it is, how it works and how it is providing value to organisations.

We’ve all come across the play Six Degrees of Separation or the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The latter posits the idea that we could reach our friendly Hollywood actor through no more than six steps via our connections and subsequently, their connections. For anyone who has worked in a large, fiercely hierarchical international business, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would easier to reach Bacon or even Barack Obama than your CEO.

And it’s that dated over-dependence on hierarchies that organisational network analysis (ONA) can effectively combat as we adapt to a more collaborative, agile and fast-moving working world.

What is organisational network analysis?

Organisational network analysis exposes the true influencers in your organisation, the hidden silos and the informal power brokers. Once you have a good understanding of these, it’s easier to succeed in change efforts, prevent a brain drain in a strategically important department, and encourage greater knowledge-sharing throughout the organisation.

Ultimately, organisational network analysis can provide an insight into how work really gets done at your organisation, regardless of the tyranny of the formal organisational structure.

How does ONA work?

Network analysis is one that’s known as a sociometric – a quantitative measure of social relationships. Originally created to measure psychological well-being, it has more recently been used to analyse and visualise relationships and networks in fields such as terrorism and fraud detection.

In an organisational setting, it shows workplace relationships and the strengths and weaknesses within networks. And it is also a measure of an employee’s social quotient – their ability to access and leverage their social capital – the networks they use to function in an organisation.

Rob Cross, Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Business at Babson College in the US has, for 20 years, been researching how social network analysis can be applied to critical business issues. He says: “ONA can provide an X-ray into the inner workings of an organisation — a powerful means of making invisible patterns of information flow and collaboration in strategically important groups visible.”

Organisational network analysis

Credit: Rob Cross via www.davidgreen.com

How is the information collected?

ONA captures and visualises relationship data. Those relationships are of three types:

  1. Communication – who’s talking to whom, and how often do people collaborate with each other. This measure is the best predictor of outcomes.
  2. Sentiment – individuals’ attitudes, perceptions and feelings about the people around them. For example, whether they like or dislike someone or whether they trust someone’s work and competence.
  3. Transactions – exchanges of real goods, knowledge, information and ideas.

These relationships can be measured in two ways. The first uses active ONA – detailed employee surveys that are able to capture the quality of relationships and information being shared, but the downsides of this method are that it takes a snapshot of a moment in time and not everyone completes surveys, so there will be gaps in knowledge of the network.

The other method of collecting the information is via passive data such as emails (content and volume), geolocation and wearable technologies. The upside is that it can handle large amounts of data. The downsides of passive collection are that it has privacy implications and doesn’t distinguish between high-quality and poor-quality exchanges, i.e. everyday business suggests team members will get a lot of emails from their bosses – but it doesn’t necessarily mean their boss is a real influencer.

As ONA uses a quantitative research method, it relies on algorithms and specialist systems to analyse the data collected by active or passive means.

What can a network map show?

Detailed network maps show individual social capital, where individuals are represented by nodes and relationships by lines (see diagram above). Nodes can be graded by importance using size and relationships can be presented as strong or weak according to the thickness of the line. The analysis can show who is important, who links two or more silos, and who is respected by others. The maps show the following information about individuals:

Centrality: People with high scores tend to be more influential and important.

Outreach: This is more about direction as well as quantity of relationships. In psychometric terms, it suggests high extraversion – these people connect with a large number of others.

Receptivity: This shows how many people come to this person for advice and information and can be useful to identify hidden talent. People talk about these people as highly competent and the measure tends to correlate highly with actual performance and appraisals.

Access: This is a measure of the speed, and steps this individual has to go through to reach other people in the organisation.

Linkage: A measure of brokerage power. This is high for the people who connect others in disconnected groups. It’s a useful position to be in as this person will have access to information from different parts of the organisation. These individuals tend to be more innovative and often in a position to control the flow of information between different departments. While you don’t want them to leave, on the downside certain personality types – those with “dark side” characteristics may accidentally or deliberately control the relationship between the departments and even the information itself.

How can ONA be used?

Of course, ONA can only present you with the data that shows the relationships and influence of people in your organisation. By itself it’s just data. But by using it with existing processes and sources of information such as psychometric tests and performance management information, it becomes much more powerful. And it creates the knowledge needed to better solve pressing organisational issues.

So, what are some of the most used applications of ONA?

ONA can be a useful source of information during a change programme as the data shows you the change agents in the organisation as well as those who might hinder change in the organisation.

It can also provide valuable insight into talent identification – suggesting who should and shouldn’t be in the talent pool; it can surface often surprising results.

According to Marcus Gee of Mentis Consulting who has developed the company’s ONA system. ONA is also useful for knowledge management and encouraging innovation. “Using ONA you can identify and target silos and dissolve them. After that you don’t have to do very much to improve knowledge management and innovation.”

ONA can also identify employees who are at risk of burnout and turnover. “If you are influential in a network it can be a double-edged sword. More people rely on you and you could be at risk of burnout and lower performance as a result. So, you tend to have a heyday and then your performance may go down.” Ultimately, these people could go on to be turnover statistics.

Some of the more intangible benefits of transparent ONA is that leaders who are made more aware of their influence in the network and their social capital, often develop greater ability to influence the network. As a result, they tend to be rated more effective as leaders. ONA can also help to democratise decision-making, encouraging decision-making power to move to influential individuals in the network who are in a position to make more effective and better decisions, rather than those decisions made in top-down, hierarchical organisations.

Across the workforce, employees often like ONA as it helps them to manage their career development, understand their position in the network and how to improve who they should connect with. And for minority groups, ONA can often show the ways in which these groups are marginalised or disadvantaged in the network. By understanding their current place in the network, members of these groups can use strategies to help them get more from their colleagues and career.

Is ONA game-changing?

So, ONA is already proving value in changing the game for some organisations and can have a beneficial effect on managing a more demanding and entrepreneurial workforce.

Tellingly, there is an even stronger business case too. ONA-guided HR practices have been shown to increase company revenue by up to about 20% and stock value by about 2%. And when ONA-guided HR is used in sales and customer service departments, both employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction increase.

Thanks to Marcus Gee of Mentis Consulting for sharing his knowledge via a speaker session from The Association for Business Psychology.

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