The Power of Collaborative Networks: Social Network Science

May 9, 2018 in
By Emily Winick

It’s easy to see how an organization is formally structured by organizational unit, position titles, and grades. But what about the informal, often invisible, structure of organizations? Everyone knows the titles on the doors, but the individuals who control the informal flow of information and create pathways for collaboration remain a mystery. Over the past 20 years, research has found a 50% increase in the volume and complexity of collaborative demands in the workplace. Matrix-based structures, collaborative technologies, globalization, and the increasing interdependence of work all rely on strong and efficient networks to get the job done. Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) provides visibility into how work is accomplished, how ideas are shared, and the people who are key connectors that bridge and share information between business units.

What is ONA?

A common method of conducting an ONA uses a survey-based tool that collects, analyzes, and visualizes patterns of collaboration, information-sharing, knowledge transfer, and productivity within an organization. Results are communicated through powerful reports and data-oriented maps, which, when combined with other data sources such as focus groups or employee engagement survey results, can draw a complete picture of an organization’s landscape and performance. An ONA can also focus on particular areas of organizational effectiveness (e.g., inter-unit collaboration, leadership development, succession planning, workload assessments) to provide actionable recommendations for your organization.

While ONAs are frequently conducted using a survey-based approach, this research field is highly adaptable, easily transferable across industries, and can leverage a number of technologies.

What can ONA do?

Moving beyond the analysis itself, research conducted in hundreds of organizations has yielded findings applicable to talent management, organizational alignment, and leadership effectiveness. One group, the Connected Commons, has formed a consortium dedicated to studying and sharing how Social Network Science improves the performance and well-being of individuals, organizations, and society. This community of academic, business, and thought-leaders have been working for nearly 20 years to understand how organizations and leaders can be more effective through applying the lessons learned from research, organizational case studies, and consulting engagements. While an organization’s ONA results can provide fascinating insight into the workings of that organization, the research and information collected and shared within the Connected Commons has yielded broad findings and best practices, which include:

Talent Optimization

  • 3-5% of people within an organization account for 20-35% of value-added collaborations. ONA can identify these high-impact individuals who, while critical to getting work accomplished, are also susceptible to burn-out and attrition.
  • While organizations accurately identify approximately 50% of their top performers, ONA findings can uncover high potential and unrecognized high performers, helping to complete the performance picture.

Organizational Alignment

  • Aligning patterns of collaboration with strategic objectives is critical to realizing business goals and objectives. Social network analytics provide insight on where to augment connectivity in order to realize these goals.
  • Leaders can accelerate adoption of change by 20-25% by working through opinion leaders to facilitate the acceptance of initiatives such as formal restructurings, cultural change programs, deployment of technology, or implementation of new work practices. Social network analytics can help identify your organization’s critical change agents, as well as the resistors who can derail change invisibly.

Leadership Effectiveness and Well-Being

  • ONA research shows that building and effectively using a network is a skill that can be taught, and leaders and high potential employees can be coached on how to build their own unique personal networks.
  • Leaders can be taught how to leverage their network such that they increase their capacity and reduce workload, span boundaries to boost connectedness and foster innovation, and achieve smarter decisions informed by diverse perspectives.
  • ONA research shows that successful leaders can use their unique networks to increase their own resilience, engagement, and well-being.

Recent research by the Connected Commons has delved into how networking strategies can be used to enhance leadership effectiveness. This new research program, led by Rob Cross, Chief Research Scientist of Connected Commons and Edward A. Madden Professor of Global Business at Babson College, included in-depth interviews with 160 organizations and business leaders from around the world. Stay tuned for our next blog in this series, where we’ll feature an interview with Rob to learn more about his research and the specific networking strategies and approaches applied by effective leaders.

About the Author: When Emily’s not reading proposals or in the office with her fun coworkers, her favorite place to be is on the beach sipping a cool drink from a pineapple. Actually, any fruit will do!