Meetings, Emails, Phone Calls: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

May 31, 2018 in
By Emily Winick

In our blog ‘The Power of Collaborative Networks: Social Network Science’, we provided a brief overview of social network science and Organizational Network Analysis (ONA), a methodology for collecting, analyzing, and visualizing patterns of collaboration, information-sharing, knowledge transfer, and productivity within an organization. Through understanding an organization’s informal or invisible structure – outside of position titles, grades, and organizational units, we gain insights into the ways people interact to obtain and deliver information, collaborate to get work done, and achieve and sustain productivity and high performance.

Rob Cross, Chief Research Scientist of the Connected Commons and Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Business at Babson College, has spent almost 20 years researching and applying the principles of social network science to analyzing organizational and individual performance. Before signing off for Memorial Day Weekend – which we hope included lots of sunshine, cookouts, and R&R – Rob spoke with us to tell us more about what sparked his interest in social network science, some of the most prominent findings from his research, and what we can expect to see next from the Connected Commons.

While Rob was completing his doctoral work in organizational behavior and information technology, the buzzword he kept hearing was ‘knowledge management’. At that time, everyone seemed to be searching for ways to organize and archive information into databases that would be accessible and usable long into the future. Through interviews and case study research, though, Rob learned quickly that people got most of their information through their interpersonal networks, not databases. This sparked his interest in designing knowledge management repositories that mimic the way people think and act, and started his trajectory of analyzing patterns of collaboration to understand how people behave and interact within their networks in order to get work done. Since then, Rob has worked with hundreds of organizations across multiple sectors and industries to give leaders what he calls an “MRI into their organization”, or an illustration of how talent is utilized, how work is accomplished, and how networks intertwine with the way work is executed.

Through his work with organizations spanning the private, public, and non-profit sectors, Rob has observed a common denominator among companies using ONA effectively: they do not see ONA as a new technology solution to fix their problems; rather, it is a critical lens through which leaders can understand how to become more thoughtful and drive results through talent that is both inside and outside of their organizations. Through interviews with dozens of organizational leaders, he learned that there are in fact multiple lenses through which ONA can have a major impact on organizational and individual performance.

Innovation and Agility: From this perspective, ONA can be used to demonstrate how work is accomplished from an alignment standpoint. This includes whether the patterns of collaboration happening within the organization are strategically integrated to lead to the business’s desired results, which may vary according to the market(s) that the organization serves. With the heightened complexity, uncertainty, and interdependence that characterizes the work many of us do, organizational networks that are agile can produce greater business outcomes. The idea of network agility includes how well an organization:

  • Connects siloed units within the network to yield productive and meaningful collaboration (which doesn’t mean all silos need to connect to one another);
  • Leverages resources on the periphery of the network, like subject matter experts and new employees;
  • Understands and utilizes the center of each network by understanding who is at their center and how they got there, as well as how they connect to the different teams they are on; and,
  • Makes external connections, like interacting with external stakeholders and establishing a meaningful presence in the organization’s broader environment.

With regard to innovation and agility, a core element to examine is collaborative overload, which acts as a significant impediment to organizational success. Collaborative overload occurs when the scales that balance collaboration between multiple parties have tipped, such that a small percentage of employees are adding a disproportionately high amount of valuable collaboration. Many of us know it when we see it: one person (or a few people, in most cases) seems to join new project teams almost every day, spends their days in back-to-back meetings and countless hours responding to emails, and fields an abundance of requests for input or access to resources.

The occurrence of this phenomenon has skyrocketed over the past several years as our networks grow in complexity and connectedness, and it leads to stress, burnout, and turnover. With this in mind, leaders can use ONA to see where they can make investments to produce the greatest efficiencies and innovation by freeing up those who are getting buried under the mountain of collaborative overload. Instead of instituting a formal organizational redesign, leaders can target their attention on the points of overload within a network and pull from other network tiers – including those along the periphery – to redirect workflow using alternate resources, ultimately alleviating the burden of collaborative overload and giving these central network performers more of their time back.

Talent-Based Initiatives: ONA also offers valuable insights regarding talent-based initiatives. Rob’s research has shown that variables related to the strength, agility, and support of employee networks do a better job at predicting individual performance and productivity than organizational variables. By understanding how networks influence individual behavior and performance, leaders can facilitate the development of networks that support people effectively throughout the entire employee lifecycle.

A critical consideration relating to ONA and talent-based initiatives is that employees need different connection points within their networks at different phases of their professional development; what is essential for newcomers is not necessarily essential for seasoned employees. Upon entering an organization, it can be a challenge for new employees to break into an established network. Without a strategic onboarding program that intentionally pulls those new employees into the networkand helps them develop systematic connections, leaders risk leaving newcomers on the periphery of the network where they aren’t adequately utilized or brought into the core of the organization, a movement that is critical for their productivity. Knowing that it takes the average person 3-5 years to come into an organization and achieve sustainable high performance, leaders can bolster the capacity for new employees to increase their productivity by creating a network that engages and supports them immediately upon entry into the organization.

At the same time, seasoned employees who are well-established within their networks and have meaningful connections might face other challenges, like collaborative overload. Often, leaders are able to identify some of the central touchpoints of the organizational network (since these are often high performers or candidates identified for succession), but they may be surprised to learn of other employees who are consistently tapped for an abundance of requests and collaborative activities. These employees may experience collaborative overload and, without the awareness and intervention of leadership, may be over-utilized and under-recognized.

Another finding of Rob’s research on ONA and individual performance is this: bigger isn’t always better. Often, new employees – whether new to the general workforce or new to an organization – are encouraged to build as vast a network as possible. But, the key is in making the right connections, not the most connections. Through Rob’s research, including more than 360 interviews with successful business leaders, it became evident that the most effective networks are ones that enable people to innovate broadly and execute work efficiently; in this case, quality, not quantity, is what matters.

So, what’s next for Connected Commons and the research on social science and ONA? Rob and his colleagues have zeroed in on the notion of collaborative overload and the degree to which collaborative intensity stands in the way of organizational and individual success. After interviewing over 100 individuals who were identified as the most efficient collaborators in their networks, Rob and his team realized that the solution isn’t a technical one, it’s an analytic one. We might be tempted to say ‘email is the root of all this trouble!’, but really, the trouble stems from the organizational norms set around how people are expected to use email. If we want a solution for bringing collaborative intensity down a few notches on the ‘overload thermometer’, we can start by using diagnostic tools like the one Rob developed to help individuals assess where they stand in terms of collaborative overload and identify what they can do differently to free up time without sacrificing effectiveness and results. But individual assessment won’t be enough; now, Rob’s research is delving into how leaders can assess and influence the factors within networks that impact and shape those organizational norms. From this research, we can expect to learn more about how gender, generational differences, and other variables influence collaborative intensity, network agility, and performance.


Interested in learning more?

Read about network agility in Rob’s newly published article in the Harvard Business Review, How to Make Sure Agile Teams Can Work Together, and learn more about collaborative overload in Rob’s article in the Harvard Business Review, Collaborative Overload.

For more information about Rob Cross and his research, visit