Track Communication Flow In Your Company Using Organizational Network Analysis

By Dan Rubin, PhD - April 19, 2019

Interest in organizational network analysis (ONA) has been trending in HR for several years, but the underlying idea has been around for decades. The purpose of studying these informal or relational networks, as they were formerly called, was to identify the informal connections, hierarchy, and leaders within the organization—just as it is with ONA.

Much of the recent attention to ONA is the result of new technology that allows passive tracking of the relationships between employees. This article will examine passive tracking and the issues associated with it, but will give more focus to active tracking—the process of identifying organizational networks through responses to survey questions.

Learn how to use survey question responses to see what matters and improve the experience for every employee with our free Employee Experience Playbook.

What is organizational network analysis?

At its most basic level, ONA is a way to study how people interact within an organization or subunit, such as a division or informal group. ONA clarifies communication patterns by mapping connections into a hub-and-spoke diagram. This creates an X-ray of how communication flows or how decisions are actually made. By highlighting who is talking or connected with whom, it’s possible to trace the flow of communication and ideas through the organization, from point of origin to dissemination through the various hubs of influence. This information can help managers and leaders identify informal knowledge brokers and opinion leaders within the organization. Organizational network analysis paints the picture of how work actually gets done in the business. (Tweet this!)

ONA is particularly useful for studying inclusion, as it illustrates how people bring new thoughts and ideas into their own networks. For example, one study examined how men in an organization built their networks compared to women. The study revealed that men tended to create insular networks with few connections to other networks or individuals within the organization, while women tended to function as connectors between those networks. This highlighted the need to ensure that women were enlisted and involved in the discussion and decision making process, since they were the ones who were most likely to share ideas with those in other networks, fostering inclusivity.

Collecting Data For Organizational Network Analysis

The data for mapping organizational networks can be gathered passively or actively. Passive ONA data is gathered through computer tracking of who is calling, meeting, or emailing whom, and how often. Active collection of ONA data is accomplished through surveys, by asking employees who they turn to in the organization for information, expertise, and collaboration.

Passive Data Collection

Passive data collection involves “listening in” on the communications between individuals at one level or another. All passive data collection involves some level of monitoring, even if only gathering information about who is talking to whom.

New technology has created new opportunities for using ONA, but there are significant privacy concerns. Some organizational network analysis software has become so sophisticated that it can monitor phone calls to determine the emotional tenor of the conversation. While no one is actually listening in on the call, it is being scanned for this tenor or sentiment data. For many people, this type of monitoring feels intrusive. Aside from the discomfort employees may have with this type of system, it can be self-defeating as well, since people tend to change their behavior when they know they are being watched.

More commonly, ONA software examines metadata within the organization, scanning and recording only data regarding who called, emailed, messaged, or met with whom; external social network connections may also be examined. This type of system can help identify connections between employees and indicate how strong the connections are by noting the frequency and duration of communication between the parties. The software might also capture sentiments from email subject lines to shed light on the reason the parties are in communication, such as a collaborative work project.

While collecting metadata is less intrusive than scanning the content of communications, it can still feel like an invasion of privacy to many people, and it may cause workers to alter their typical behavior patterns. For this reason and many others, active data collection is by far the more acceptable approach.

Active Data Collection

Active data collection involves asking employees about their connections to others within the organization through organizational network analysis survey questions. Collecting the information through surveys eliminates the “Big Brother” aspects of passive ONA data collection. ONA survey questions can be included on census surveys, or a separate organizational network analysis survey can be conducted.

There are two common types of survey items used for collecting ONA data; both seek information about whom employees turn to for:

  • Information sharing
  • Problem solving
  • Support (work related advice)

The design of the first type of survey item includes a list of names and asks respondents to rate frequency of contact with each individual for each of the above reasons. This design can work well for small groups. For large companies or business units, the second type of survey item is open-ended. This allows respondents to enter the names of the five to 10 co-workers they connect with most frequently, and to rate frequency for each of the reasons for contact on a Likert scale.

Common organizational network analysis survey questions include variations on these themes:

  • Whom do you typically turn to for help in thinking through a new problem at work?
  • Whom are you likely to turn to for discussion of a new or innovative idea?
  • Whom do you typically give work-related information?
  • Whom do you turn to for input prior to making an important decision?
  • Whom do you feel has contributed to your professional development?
  • Whom do you trust to keep your best interests in mind?

Additional items may ask for the respondent’s understanding or awareness of co-workers’ knowledge and skills, or whom they perceive to be experts and opinion leaders.

How To Conduct An Organizational Network Analysis

Whether data is collected passively or actively, once it has been analyzed, ONA generates a relationship map similar to a word cloud; individuals who are contacted most frequently by co-workers form hubs with spokes radiating outward to indicate connections to others. A typical ONA diagram might look like this:

Organizational network analysis

In the diagram, the size of the hub indicates level of influence, and the length of the spoke indicates strength of the connection. This graphic representation helps leaders and managers see the various networks within the organization at a glance, as well as which employees are most influential and which employees serve as connectors for the various networks.

How can the data from organizational network analysis be used?

ONA can provide a good view into informal decision-making and communication within the organization. It can also reveal “hidden” organizational resources in the form of employees who may not hold high positions within the formal hierarchy, but who nonetheless exert significant influence on fellow employees.

The insights derived from ONA may be helpful for an organization going through significant change, for example, to ensure leaders are tapping into the right means of communication. By discussing the change with informal thought leaders on the front end, leaders may be able to exert a positive influence on communication and employee perceptions. This informal communication network may also be useful for correcting misperceptions revealed in survey results. A survey may show that employees are not aware of career development opportunities within the organization; making influencers aware of the development opportunities that do exist can help disseminate the information more widely within the organization.

ONA can also pinpoint employees who may be candidates for roles within the formal hierarchy, or those who should be transitioned to other roles if a business restructuring eliminates the position they currently occupy. Reviewing the engagement and performance scores of informal leaders and their networks can give additional insight into who should be considered for a new role.

Organizational network analysis can be an interesting way to gather information, but companies can struggle with what to do with it. Properly handled, it can generate additional insights useful for improving communication and collaboration within the organization, and help leaders gain a deeper level of understanding of how decisions are made and work is done on a daily basis within the business.

Seeing the way forward for your business starts with understanding how your people work.

To make improvements that will really impact your business success, you have to start by seeing what matters to your employees and understanding how work actually gets done within your company. The Perceptyx platform collects the data you need to understand your people and their perceptions. Paired with customized survey design and analysis, our platform delivers the insights you need to address your biggest business problems—and see the way forward to increased productivity and profitability.

Contact Perceptyx today and see how we can help you gain the insights you need to make the improvements most crucial to your company’s success.

Download Now: The People Analytics Playbook


We promise that we won't SPAM you.