Well over a decade ago, I walked into a session at a conference in Tucson, Arizona. I wasn’t sure exactly what the session was going to be about, but it sounded interesting.
The presenter was a professor at the University of Virginia named Rob Cross.
Rarely have I ever uttered these words about a conference breakout session, but this one blew my mind.
Rob presented a masterclass on organizational network analysis and shared how he had helped organizations apply it. The network maps he showed were fascinating and he described how this approach made the informal networks of an organization visible.
His stories of how he’d used ONA is what really floored me. And I can still remember one of those stories well over a decade later.
He described how he’d been hired to work with a large organization with an extensive and global R&D department. The client was concerned that R&D was underperforming in part due to a lack of communication and collaboration globally.
So, they conducted a network analysis to understand and map the relationships in this group. They discovered that they had geographically disconnected networks. People within the same country or location were well-connected, but the network broke down beyond that.
In fact, they found that they had people within R&D working on the same things in separate offices around the globe, but they weren’t aware of one another’s efforts. No communication, no collaboration.
So, they decided to design an intervention to address this.
As I recall the story, they organized a global conference for all of their R&D people to come together physically in one place. At the event, everyone was wearing an RFID-enabled nametag. In advance of the meeting, Rob and the client had mapped out the people in the network who they felt should know each other based on their role or the work they did.
When an employee attending the event passed someone in the hall or sat down next to someone who they had been matched with, both nametag would light up. They knew to then look around to find the other person with a lit up nametag and have a conversation.
As these conversations happened, they also had a live visualization of the network projected on a screen or wall that lit up new links as people connected with one another. They could see the network forming in real time.
He talked about how this had a tremendous impact on their performance. The break in the network hadn’t happened intentionally, so it was just a matter of getting the right people connected together to unleash collaboration and cooperation.
This story floored me. The fact that they had not only mapped the network, but they used that information to actively “program” for new connections and relationships using technology was amazing to me. I was hooked and remain hooked on the promise of ONA to this day.
A week ago, I participated in a series of educational webinars presented by Connected Commons, an online membership community dedicated to the practice of Organizational Network Analysis.
The presenters included some of the biggest names in this field of work. Among them were Rob Cross, Valdis Krebs, and others. If you’d like to view the recordings, you can find them here (at least for now). They were really well done and practical.
Sitting through these webinars reminded me again of why I feel that ONA is so powerful yet underutilized. I am encouraged that it seems that more organizations are starting to find uses for it.
I had the opportunity to hear him speak last year about this work. One story he shared was about an underperforming call center team at GM. After conducting an ONA on the team, they realized that this team was far less cohesive and connected than other teams who were higher performing. The intervention they used to address this was simple and cost them nothing.
Instead of having staggered breaks, this team was sent to breaks and lunch at the same time. That’s it. This resulted in team members spending more time together and building relationships. This simple change resulted in a more cohesive team and improved performance.
So, here’s the bottom line. If you aren’t familiar with Organizational Network Analysis, change that now. Learn about it. Relationships and connections have always been important to how work gets done. That impact is amplifying by the day and will only continue to do so in the future. Understanding networks and relationships will be vital moving forward.
Put ONA in your toolbox. You’ll be glad you did.