15 June 2021

Using Organizational Network Analysis Today & Tomorrow: Insights from the Literature

Priyanka Mehrotra
Research Lead

TL;DR

  • We reviewed over 30 recent articles on organizational network analysis (ONA), and identified key themes and critical articles that we encourage readers to check out
  • There has been a steady increase in the value that ONA can provide orgs, its use cases, and overall usage among orgs over the last few years
  • Among the themes, we learned that ONA can help orgs manage remote work, understand and improve levels of inclusion, and play a role in preparing them for the future

Introduction

If we had to choose one analytics approach that makes us most excited, then it would be organizational network analysis (ONA). Why? Because ONA:

  • Can be used for a wide variety of important use cases (hello, inclusion analytics!)
  • Is getting easier to use (thank you, vendors!)
  • Can drive big impact (for instance, an org that experienced a productivity dip following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, analyzed collaboration data to understand and improve it by 28%)1

The use of ONA is on the rise. A LinkedIn survey conducted in 2019 revealed that 14% of companies used ONA, with 27% of them planning to use it in the future.2 In 2020, another study revealed that 44% of companies were using ONA globally.3 Thought leaders have noticed a proliferation and increase in discussions around the value of ONA for orgs over the course of the last year.4

Additionally, we also saw a rise in the number of:

  • ONA vendors that participated in our 2020 People Analytics Tech study, as compared with 20195
  • Partnerships between ONA tech providers and other companies that offer analytics capabilities6,7
  • People analytics leaders who told us about internal network analysis systems they had put in place to understand their existing networks

Given this growing interest in the space, we decided to dive into the literature to find out what’s new with ONA and how the past 15 months have impacted orgs’ use of it.

What is ONA?

Before we dive into our lit review on this topic, let’s briefly discuss what ONA is.

Definition: Organizational network analysis (ONA) is a method to measure and graph patterns of collaboration by examining the strength, frequency, and nature of interactions between people in networks within and across orgs.8

Applied correctly and intentionally, ONA can be an extremely valuable tool in the people analytics leader’s toolkit. From identifying who are key influencers and connectors within the org to measuring connections, relationships, and inclusion—ONA can help orgs understand and, thus, strengthen their internal and external structures. The ability to do this became especially crucial during the shift to remote work when the pandemic hit.

Using ONA to understand existing networks, communication patterns, and work behaviors helped orgs prioritize, build effective strategies to address new challenges, and remove barriers for their people during the pandemic.

We looked at recent literature to understand how ONA helped orgs during the pandemic, the role it played, and how orgs should continue using it moving forward. A few key insights stood out for us from the lit:

  • ONA is instrumental in helping orgs manage remote work
  • Orgs should consider using ONA to better understand inclusion
  • ONA can help orgs design for the future

What Is New in the World OF ONA?

ONA is instrumental in helping orgs manage remote work

We’re delighted to see several articles, by both organizational leaders and solution providers, that emphasize the role ONA has played in helping orgs manage a remote workforce. In particular, two use cases stand out:

  1. Employee wellbeing and burnout. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted life worldwide. Physical distancing and remote working led to a heightened focus on physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing for individuals.
    • Orgs want to find out which employees might be at risk of burnout. Network data are able to identify remote teams or individuals who might be at risk of isolation. Orgs are able to use those data to put policies in place at the right time and address challenges that can help.
    • Another way ONA is able to help orgs with employee wellbeing is by monitoring collaborative workload among individuals working extra hours or being tapped by their colleagues for additional work requests.9 This especially has become crucial during the shift to remote work as many individuals found it difficult to disconnect from work.10
  1. Changes in networks and connections. ONA can help orgs measure the changes in workplace networks by collecting active (e.g., surveys) and / or passive (e.g., emails, Slack, Teams) data from employees.

By identifying teams and functions in which interactions might be declining, leaders are better prepared to foster cross-team collaboration and information flow.

  • Once employees began working remotely, a major concern for orgs was to ensure that collaboration and connections were not disrupted. Orgs need employees to feel connected even while they’re not working from the office. Findings from a recently released Microsoft 2021 Work Trend study found that companies have increasingly become siloed since the switch to remote work and existing employee networks have shrunk.11
  • Other research showed that bonding connections—the closest connections that people have in their networks, and which have a positive impact on productivity—have increased during remote work. On the other hand, bridging connections—interactions beyond the team and which have a positive impact on innovation—have.12

These findings have important implications for orgs: While orgs may be moving fast with highly productive teams, they’re less able to foster new and novel ideas, and scale them through the org.

Orgs should consider using ONA to better understand inclusion

Another exciting development we’ve come across is the growing use of ONA to understand and advance inclusion. Orgs have traditionally leaned on employee perception data to understand the levels of inclusion among employees, but haven’t been successful in capturing it holistically.

The social justice movements of 2020—that resulted in a greater focus around diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB)—spotlighted the role that ONA can play in helping orgs understand and improve DEIB.

The ability to understand and measure inclusion at the individual and enterprise levels has become especially crucial during remote work as orgs worry about declining social connections that could result in loss in terms of performance and job satisfaction.13

Specifically, we came across several articles that spoke about how ONA can help identify:

  • Well-connected individuals to facilitate onboarding and buddy programs—to retain new employees from diverse backgrounds and help them feel included early
  • Where to place interventions for isolated groups or individuals who don’t feel included or part of the broader org—to improve cross-functional interactions and help facilitate different teams to build networks
  • Groups or teams dominated by one particular gender, race, ethnicity—to design strategies to make them more inclusive for the underrepresented groups
  • Diverse talent who are “hidden stars”—to recognize potential good candidates for leadership development and HiPo programs

As conversations and actions around DEIB have changed over the course of 2020, point-in-time surveys—such as annual engagement or pulse surveys—have yielded limitations in measuring employees’ levels of inclusion and belonging.

As the recent literature has demonstrated, an added layer of passive data—that shows how employees interact with each other and who they interact with on a regular basis—can show the social connections between them and illuminate levels of inclusion within a workplace.

ONA can help orgs design for the future

The lit review highlighted 2 key uses for ONA that can help orgs better prepare for whatever may come next:

  • Work models
  • Agile transformation

Work Models

Most CEOs expect some sort of a hybrid work model in a post-COVID-19 world. Yet, a majority of them aren’t prepared / don’t have a vision in place for it.14

Network analysis can help orgs be proactive in planning for hybrid work, rather than reacting to the challenges that arise due to the changes brought on by it.

Based on data from work behaviors, job needs, and networks, ONA can help leaders:

  1. Identify different work needs for groups or individuals, using data to make decisions on:
  • Who should return to the office
  • How frequently they should be allowed to work from home
  • What a hybrid work model should look like
  1. Be better prepared and stay connected with employees as the new working model is introduced, and put in place strategies and policies to support them
  2. Identify changing patterns in collaboration and networks for groups or individuals who move back to the office, as compared with those who continue to work from home primarily, and make the necessary course corrections if needed

Agile Transformation

The lit also highlighted the role ONA can play in helping orgs with agile transformation. The pandemic has made orgs recognize the necessity to focus on becoming more agile—if they want to survive future crises. ONA can help with that.

A crucial requirement for agile transformation is having the right people and teams in place.15 Implementing agile initiatives often involve creating networks of well-connected and empowered teams. ONA can help leaders:

  • Understand and improve how people collaborate
  • Design robust teams that are able to work together effectively16

WHAT CAUGHT OUR ATTENTION

Of the lit we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of these pieces contains information we found useful and / or intriguing. We learned from their authors’ perspectives—and encourage you to do the same.

Hybrid working may change our workplace social networks. What does it mean for inclusion?

Paris Will, LSE Blog, March 2021

Looks at what social network analysis reveals about the changes brought about by hybrid working and their potential for affecting inclusion in the workplace. The author finds that there may be both positive impacts, such as stronger ties and greater involvement in workplace processes, along with the risks of reduced social information-sharing.

At the organizational level, the connectivity of the network can be assessed to see how many people are involved in different workplace processes, and at the individual level, it can show how included one is by the amount of social connections they have.

Highlights

  • Benefits and risks may come along as a result of shifting to a hybrid working model in the post-COVID-19 world, such as flexible working along with reduced opportunities for informal contact
  • Social network analysis can play an important role in illuminating levels of inclusion in a workplace
  • For orgs looking to transition to a hybrid work model, now is a good opportunity for them to monitor and assess the structural social components underlying inclusion within their workplace

What is the impact of virtual and hybrid working on innovation? (Interview with Michael Arena)

David Green, myHRfuture, December 2020

An interview with Michael Arena, VP for Talent and Development at Amazon Web Services, about the role of social capital, and how orgs can measure and harness it to their advantage through ONA.

I describe human capital as sort of a summarization of what you and I know, our experiences, our competencies, our capabilities, social capital is basically how well positioned we are inside of our organizations to leverage that human capital.

Highlights

  • ONA can be used to measure social capital: 2 primary types of social capital are bonding and bridging
  • Passive ONA is good to study the dynamic effects of a network across time because a network is never static
  • HR often tends to be responsive and ONA can help HR become proactive in helping orgs prepare for the future

To weather a crisis, build a network of teams

Andrea Alexander, Aaron De Smet, Sarah Kleinman, and Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi, McKinsey, April 2020

Details 4 steps that can help orgs create a dynamic and collaborative team structure which can tackle an org’s most pressing problems quickly.

A robust network of empowered teams makes faster, better decisions. It is united by a common purpose, that gathers information, devises solutions, puts them into practice, and refines outcomes.

Highlights

  • Create teams that’ll tackle current strategic priorities and key challenges facing the org
  • After creating the initial set of teams, a leader must shift toward ensuring that multidirectional communication is taking place—not only across teams within the network, but also between these teams and the rest of the org
  • The leader’s approach to communication will foster an environment of collaboration, transparency, and psychological safety that is crucial to its success
  • Once the initial network of teams is established and after support from leadership early in the journey, the network should become self-sustaining and self-managing

The age of behavioral analytics at work: using IT metadata to make improved business decisions

Philip Arkcoll, IHRIM, 2020

Makes the case for using ONA to responsibly and ethically analyze communication and collaboration data, and gather insights to help orgs make better business decisions and improve employee experience.

In most organizations, thousands of these small interactions or sessions occur across a variety of these digital platforms in a given work day. As a result, within each of these digital tools lies a mountain of information on how organization functions, how work gets done and what the day-to-day experience of employees is like.

Highlights

  • ONA has grown significantly in popularity over the last few years
  • Finding an ethical way to perform ONA isn’t just important for employee buy-in, but also may be a matter of regulatory compliance as the laws on data continue to evolve
  • A leading practice is to avoid visual interpretation of network diagrams, and focus more on network metrics and mathematical models to look at parameters of the network and included groups
  • To get to the valuable insights, an org needs to go beyond just looking at the raw data and metrics on interaction

Using adaptable organization network analysis to reveal patterns that drive inclusion

Maya Bodan, India Mullady, and Devon Dickau, Deloitte Blog, April 2020

Highlights the role of ONA in helping orgs identify if their leaders, teams, or functions are not only diverse, but also inclusive. The article details the use of ONA to illuminate otherwise invisible information flows, connectivity, and collaboration between individuals and groups.

Next to increasingly standard inclusion measures such as engagement survey results that reveal workforce assessment and quantitative assessments of the talent life cycle, uncovering potential organizational biases, AONA can give leaders relationship-based analytic insights on how work is truly getting done in their organization, shining a light on who is being included—and who is not.

Highlights

  • ONA can help surface individuals who serve as liaisons, groups that operate in a vacuum, and employees who foster or hinder information flow
  • ONA can help leaders focus more on underrepresented minority groups and highlight any systemic discrepancies
  • Some example questions that ONA can help answer include:
    • Where do we start the conversation on inclusivity in our org?
    • Are our informal mentorship efforts and programs effective?

Footnotes

  1. “Case study: Employee stress and wellbeing–Software development company measures employee stress in 6 days to recover $1.5M in worker productivity,” YVA.ai, 2020, https://www.yva.ai/measuring-employee-stress-and-wellbeing
  2. Global Talent Trends 2020: 4 trends changing the way you attract and retain talent, LinkedIn Talent Solutions, 2020, https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/recruiting-tips/global-talent-trends-2020
  3. “Win with Empathy, Mercer Global Talent Trends 2020,” Mercer, 2020, https://www.mercer.com/our-thinking/career/global-talent-hr-trends.html
  4. “How HR can Apply Network Analysis to Open Data,” MyHRFuture.com / Adam McKinnon & André Vermeij, August 13, 2020, https://www.myhrfuture.com/blog/2020/8/12/how-hr-can-apply-network-analysis-to-open-data; “What is the impact of virtual and hybrid working on innovation?” LinkedIn, Digital HR Leaders Podcast / David Green, December 1, 2020, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-impact-virtual-hybrid-working-innovation-david-green/; and, “The New Technology of Teams: How Organizational Network Analysis Can Increase Team Collaboration,” LinkedIn / Francisco Marin & Andrew Spence, March 30, 2021, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/new-technology-teams-how-organizational-network-analysis-marin-1f/
  5. People Analytics Tech 2020: Overview, RedThread Research / Stacia Garr & Priyanka Mehrotra, 2020, https://redthreadresearch.com/pat-2020-overview/
  6. “Visier Announces ONA Data Partnership with TrustSphere,” Visier, Press Releases, June 11, 2019, https://www.visier.com/press-release/visier-announces-ona-data-partnership-with-trustsphere/#:~:text=VANCOUVER%2C%20BC%20and%20NEW%20YORK,Organizational%20Network%20Analysis%20(ONA)
  7. “HR Analytics Help Fight Employee Burnout,” YVA.ai, Nov 25, 2020, https://www.yva.ai/blog/visier-explains-how-ona-and-ai-powered-hr-analytics-help-fight-employee-burnout
  8. “What is organizational network analysis?”, Rob Cross, https://www.robcross.org/what-is-organizational-network-analysis/
  9. “What is organizational network analysis? And how does it benefit companies?” i4cp / The i4cp team, May 10, 2021, https://www.i4cp.com/productivity-blog/what-organizational-network-analysis-is-and-how-it-benefits-companies
  10. “Remote Employees Are Working Longer Than Before,” SHRM / Roy Maurer, Dece,ber 16, 2020, https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-news/pages/remote-employees-are-working-longer-than-before.aspx
  11. 2021 Work Trend Index: Annual Report–The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work–Are We Ready? Microsoft, 2021, https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/worklab/work-trend-index
  12. “What is the Impact of Virtual and Hybrid Working on Innovation?” MyHRFuture.com / David Green, December 1, 2020, https://www.myhrfuture.com/digital-hr-leaders-podcast/2020/12/1/what-is-the-impact-of-virtual-and-hybrid-working-on-innovation
  13. “Hybrid working may change our workplace social networks. What does it mean for inclusion?” LSE / Paris Will, March 16, 2021, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2021/03/16/hybrid-working-may-change-our-workplace-social-networks-what-does-it-mean-for-inclusion/
  14. “What executives are saying about the future of hybrid work,” McKinsey & Company / Andrea Alexander & Rich Cracknell, et al, May 17, 2021, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/what-executives-are-saying-about-the-future-of-hybrid-work
  15. “For an Agile Transformation, Choose the Right People,” Harvard Business Review / Rob Cross & Heidi K. Gardner, et al, March-April 2021, https://hbr.org/2021/03/for-an-agile-transformation-choose-the-right-people?utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=hbr&utm_source=linkedin&tpcc=orgsocial_edit
  16. “To weather a crisis, build a network of teams,” McKinsey & Company / Andrea Alexander & Aaron De Smet, et al, April 8, 2020, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/to-weather-a-crisis-build-a-network-of-teams

Written by

Priyanka Mehrotra

Priyanka Mehrotra is a Research Lead at RedThread Research. Before joining the company in 2018, she was part of the research team at Bersin by Deloitte where she worked on talent management, D&I, and people analytics as well as conducted research and contributed content for Bersin’s Mid-market study. Prior to Bersin by Deloitte, Priyanka worked at several non-profits, think-tanks, and international organizations where she published and co-authored several articles.

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