Is Human Network Analysis the Next Frontier in People Analytics?

By Dave Zielinski July 9, 2019
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​What if software could help identify the employees most likely to collaborate in ways that lead to new product innovation, get new hires up to speed faster or point out high-potential employees earlier than ever?

A process called human network analysis (HNA) is designed to achieve those objectives. HNA maps the interactions between teams and individuals—communication that often occurs outside the lines of the organizational chart—to identify who employees work with most frequently, who they turn to for advice, who they consider mentors and more. Using mapping software and building on a legacy approach known as organizational network analysis (ONA), the process analyzes network data like e-mail communication, calendar appointments, instant messages, and interaction on internal networks like Slack or Yammer to determine communication patterns, help identify hidden influencers and position employees where they can have the most impact.

Some call HNA the art of making invisible patterns of strategically important communication visible. Vendors such as Polinode, Trustsphere, Socilyzer and Humanyze offer software that can help companies map these internal connections

HNA also can help gauge changes in internal communication or collaboration patterns after major changes like company mergers or a restructuring. "If you're going through any change management exercise, a carefully constructed network analysis can help you determine who now goes to who for answers, direction and support," said Jeff Mike, vice president and head of HR research for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting. "That can help you identify and support influencers in the new version of the company."

Some of these influencers might be previously unrecognized "boundary spanners" between functions like HR and information technology, Mike said. "They could be leaders, but they might also be technical experts or hold other titles."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining High-Performance Work Teams]

Power of Relational Analytics

A recent study by Deloitte supports the argument that, despite the hype surrounding people analytics, most such initiatives have only seen modest results. The study found that only 9 percent of companies believe they have a good understanding of which talent dimensions drive performance in their companies.

Some believe the lackluster results stem from narrow approaches and using data on individual employees when data about the interaction and relationships between people—relational analytics—is more important.

Companies including General Motors, Cisco and Ramco Systems, an enterprise software provider based in India, have used relational analytics to spur innovation, improve new-hire onboarding and boost sales performance. GM used the approach to identify employees most likely to work together in ways that would spur creative breakthroughs.

Ramco Systems improved the onboarding process of new sales employees. One of the company's biggest challenges is replacing top salespeople, according to an internal study that showed it took three to five months for new salespeople to establish strong relationships with existing clients after replacing their seasoned predecessors. Ramco wanted to shorten that time frame and sought to do so by using a network analysis tool to create a visual map of connections of department sales executives.

By understanding the departing employees' networks at a client company and the former salesperson's strongest relationships, new salespeople were able to prioritize where to spend their energy and create a smoother transition from departing employees to their replacements, reducing their ramp-up time to weeks instead of months.

The technology company Cisco implemented HNA after recognizing a fundamental shift in how work was getting done in the organization, said Gianpaolo Barozzi, senior HR director at Cisco in Milan, Italy.

"More and more work gets done today through hybrid human-machine combinations, ad-hoc collaborations and globally dispersed groups," Barozzi said. "In this environment, teams have become the fundamental unit and more organizations work like a dynamic collective rather than as a static hierarchy."

That evolution led Cisco to launch an HNA initiative to better connect its existing teams, to identify "hidden" teams—those units not visible on an organizational chart but that exist as defined by people working together for specific objectives—and to create new teams. "It gives us a network perspective in managing the organization," Barozzi said. "It allows us to see how connected teams are and who is playing critical roles in the network."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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