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Find Your Influencers with Organizational Network Analysis

New technology spots high-potentials, strengthens connections among employees

A businessman is pointing at a graph on a screen.

​Imagine you had a way to identify high-potential employees earlier than ever in their work lives, providing a head start on grooming these individuals for future leadership roles. Or that hidden "influencers" in your company could be reliably identified and convinced to be key agents in change initiatives. In another scenario, envision an ability to help pinpoint and reduce communication bottlenecks in your company, improving workforce productivity and engagement.

These objectives now are possible through use of organizational network analysis (ONA), an emerging form of HR technology that captures data from e-mail, instant messages, feedback surveys and collaboration platforms to help identify and understand how people communicate within an organization.

ONA software provides a structured way to visualize formal and informal relationships in organizations by analyzing how communications, decisions and information flow internally, said David Mallon, head of research for Bersin by Deloitte, an HR research and consulting firm in New York City.

"Interest in using the methodology and toolsets related to ONA is growing," Mallon said. "Companies and HR leaders are using ONA to identify existing communication pathways and bottlenecks, to assess engagement levels and to determine if organizational structures need to change."

Deloitte's 2017 Global Human Capital Trends survey found that 48 percent of respondents were experimenting with ONA tools. The survey included responses from 10,400 business and HR leaders across 140 countries. Cisco Systems, Cigna Health Insurance and General Motors and other businesses are using ONA to help identify productivity patterns, high-potential leaders and diversity issues, according to a related Bersin by Deloitte report on HR technology trends.

One company in the Bersin report used ONA tools to analyze communication in its sales function and found that many experts in the group were being overlooked.  After creating a new team-centric structure, the sales function's total generated revenue rose by more than 12 percent.

Established ONA vendors include companies like Trustsphere, KeenCorp and Microsoft Delve. Some of the vendors in this class also have tools that identify the mood or tone of internal communications to assess where organizations might be under stress—or to help uncover potential fraud.  As ONA vendors grow in functionality and capability, experts expect many providers will be incorporated into core talent management platforms.

How ONA Works

Mallon said there are informal "go-to" teams or individuals in every organization that serve as hidden influencers, those whose opinions hold sway with peers and who know how to get things accomplished—or know how to quickly find the right people with the answers. ONA technology can help uncover these individuals by analyzing "nodes and ties" of communication networks in companies.

A "central node" in an ONA is an employee who is well-connected in a company, who shares information readily and who is considered influential, according to Mallon. "Ties" are the formal and informal relationships created between these central nodes and others. It's important to create strong ties between nodes and "knowledge brokers"—individuals who create bridges between departments or teams—to ensure information flows effectively throughout a company.

ONA helps identify problems with silos that aren't communicating, for example, and where stronger connections might be built. Formal organizational charts don't always reflect the networks of people who get vital work done in organizations, Mallon said. "These people can become key change agents during periods of transformation or amid organization rollouts if approached and communicated with effectively."

ONA also can be valuable in creating new, more efficient organizational structures that reflect changes in how work is being done. "An ONA toolset can help you determine if an org structure should be redesigned to be flatter or more team-oriented, for example," Mallon said.

HR's Role in ONA

Although ONA use among HR professionals is not yet formally tracked in Sierra-Cedar's annual HR Systems Survey, it represents "an emerging trend," said Stacey Harris, vice president of research and analytics for the IT research and consulting firm in Alpharetta, Ga.  "The technology is in the new class of productivity-enhancing software, at the intersection of tools designed to improve engagement, performance and productivity."

Harris said there's potential to increase ONA's impact by integrating it with existing technologies like workforce management platforms. "If leaders can look at which employees were scheduled over what time periods and pair it with ONA data, for example, it can prove valuable in making better scheduling decisions," she said. "It provides more intelligence on who should be placed on what projects or shifts, based on patterns of communication and influence identified through the nodes, ties and connectors of ONA."

HR leaders should play a prominent role in overseeing or implementing such workforce productivity tools, said Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst for Constellation Research, a technology research firm in Cupertino, Calif., and should partner with IT to ensure these new systems complement or integrate with their existing platforms.

"HR should be a shepherd and advocate for technologies like ONA," Mueller said. "Any technology that provides a better understanding of how work really gets done inside organizations, improves work lives or makes people more productive should be on the radar of HR."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer in Minneapolis.

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