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Is ONA a Better Way to Manage Performance?


man using computer

One of the many exciting growth areas in HR technology is a data analytics function called organizational network analysis (ONA).

ONA software captures communications and survey data to help identify and understand the relationships between people within an organization. ONA can be applied to a variety of HR responsibilities, including workforce planning, employee engagement and talent management.

Josh Merrill, CEO and co-founder of Confirm, a software company based in San Francisco, believes that ONA is more effective for measuring employee performance than traditional methods.

Merrill talked with SHRM Online about how ONA works, how it can improve performance management and how employers can get started with it.

Confirm is funded by SHRMLabs and was chosen as one of the participants in the 2023 WorkplaceTech Accelerator program, which helps workplace tech innovators immerse themselves in the HR experience and get firsthand exposure to the needs of HR leaders.

SHRM Online: What is ONA?

Merrill: Employees today collaborate across functions using tools like Zoom and Slack, generate ideas from the ground up, and often work remotely. In this networked work environment, managers often struggle to see the full impact of their team’s work, making it difficult for them to accurately evaluate performance.

Organizational network analysis allows companies to measure performance in the way it really happens—through networks. ONA measures and visualizes workplace interactions, analyzing their frequency and strength. It allows anyone at a company to evaluate anyone else at the same company. That evaluation can be positive or critical; what matters is that it mirrors the way we work today. ONA helps HR leaders make impactful people decisions through a data-driven approach.

SHRM Online: How can ONA improve performance management, specifically?

Merrill: Despite the fact that work has evolved dramatically over the past 100 years, we’re still using the same dated models to measure employee performance. They’re biased and inaccurate.

When applied to performance management, ONA gives leaders visibility into the true impact of their employees. ONA provides a quantitative view of performance based on every employee’s view of one another. This ensures significant employee decisions are based on clear data, rather than company politics or the loudest voice in the room.

ONA’s role in performance reviews makes sure the true impact employees make at work takes center stage, giving leaders an accurate view of performance with less time and effort.

At the start of any performance review cycle, all employees are asked a few research-tested ONA questions. Some examples include:

  • Who at your organization do you go to for help and advice?
  • Who motivates and energizes you at work?
  • Who do you believe is making an outstanding impact?
  • Who do you believe needs additional support or attention?

The answers to these questions reveal the most impactful relationships within each employee’s direct network of co-workers. Each impact is different; some are positive, and some are negative.

Even though these questions are qualitative in nature, especially when asked to substantiate the individuals chosen, when this data is aggregated, it provides a very quantitative output and insight into the employees that are standing out the most, for better and for worse. This gives leaders visibility into their high performers and those who need additional support, helping them confidently make promotions, PIPs [performance improvement plans] and retention decisions based on clear data. CHROs can pinpoint hidden contributors, unknown influencers and unknown problems within their company.

SHRM Online: How can a company get started with ONA?

Merrill: Pilot programs and continuous training will be key. Before a full-scale rollout, test the integration of ONA insights in specific departments or processes to gauge effectiveness and refine the approach, and provide HR teams with ongoing training on how to utilize and integrate ONA findings into their daily practices.

It’s also important to engage key stakeholders early in the process, demonstrating the benefits of ONA [and] highlighting instances where ONA insights led to positive organizational outcomes, to build trust in the methodology. And of course, there needs to be a centralized system for data collection, analysis and storage to maintain consistency across the organization.

Using network data, employers can identify trends and correlations for leaders to understand which employees they can’t afford to lose, and which need more help. This saves companies massive amounts of money in turnover costs associated with losing high performers and keeping poor performers around for too long––because performance isn’t distributed by a traditional bell curve.

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