Network Roundtable: the state of organizational network analysis


Having spoken at several of the Network Roundtable conferences since they were initiated three years ago, it was fantastic to come back to speak again at this year’s event in Charlottesville, Virginia. The predominant impression is that of maturity. At the first conferences, most of the speakers addressed the potential applications and the early insights. At this event, it is clear that there is widespread use of organizational network analysis (ONA) in US and global organizations, and that much of it is both well established and creating substantial value.

Rob Cross, the driving force behind the Network Roundtable and the success of Organizational Network Analysis, has now firmly established the discipline as a mainstream discipline. In three years the Roundtable has grown to have 98 leading organizations as members.

Major ONA initiatives at organizations such as Microsoft, Lehman Brothers, Montgomery Watson Harza and the like over a number of years have created both a longitudinal history of how networks evolve in organizations, and highly valuable business outcomes.

Multiple articles on ONA have appeared in each of the leading business journals -Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, California Management Review, Strategy + Business, and others – and the major media have also all covered the work and featured Rob Cross’s role. The latest was a good article in Fortune a couple of months back titled The Hidden Workplace, which describes in detail some of the ways organizations have been using ONA and similar approaches.

It’s been interesting to see the evolution of how ONA is applied. At the conference Rob made the point that the first meeting consisted 90% of people working in knowledge management. Today, the attendance is very diverse, including roles in leadership, talent, sales, innovation, and more.

Over the last few years, several domains for applying ONA have shown particular promise and been taken up very rapidly by corporations. Probably most prominent in the last couple of years has been leadership development, from which an array of valuable outcomes emerge, including modelling the behaviors of the most talented, rapid on-boarding of executives, and effective succession planning. Now that innovation is squarely back on the corporate agenda, ONA has been found to be one of the most powerful tools to enhance innovation capabiliites, both inside the organization and in fostering open innovation. Major scale organizational change has always been an obvious application of ONA, and a manual of effective approaches on this front is being prepared. The client relationship and revenue enhancement work which I have been working on for the last few years has now reached maturity through a wide range of successful projects. Other domains where there has been progress but more remains to be done include external networks. The way my brain is wired, I’m always more interested in what happens across boundaries than within boundaries. As such I’m particularly interested in developing new approaches in external networks, including influence networks, open innovation networks, and industry networks. Much more coming on this front.

One observation is that while ONA is firmly established in North America, and has had passable uptake in Europe, I’ve seen relatively little use in Asia and Australia. There are some cultural reasons for this, though also the reality of lag in diffusion of management practices that are developed in the US.

As global business competition more intensifies, organizations must continually develop their productivity and effectiveness. ONA is a central competence for organizations that are seeking to build on existing success. This is now a core business tool.