Organizational network analysis goes mainstream


This week’s issue of BusinessWeek features a great article on organizational network analyis (ONA) called The Office Chart That Really Counts, showing that the discipline is really beginning to hit the mainstream (following BusinessWeek’s piece last October on related work). The article focuses on the work being done by organizations such as IBM, Accenture, Merck, Lehman Brothers, Capital One, Procter & Gamble, and others such as Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Co., and Microsoft of the 53 companies that are members of the Network Roundtable. Rob Cross of the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia set up the Network Roundtable 18 months ago so that leading organizations could share what they are learning in applying network analysis to enhance performance, and thus accelerate the development of this immensely valuable discipline. Some of the key areas being addressed by roundtable members include developing talent and leadership, enhancing innovation, facilitating mergers and major reorganizations, and building superior client, supplier and partner relationships. I am the research leader for this last category of external connectivity work at the Network Roundtable, though I apply ONA across a broader range of areas with my clients.

Social network analysis is not new – it has been done since the 1930s to understand communication and relationship patterns in society. Organizational network analysis has developed over the last ten years to apply these early ideas to enhancing organizational performance. Many managers have been intrigued by the ideas, however found it difficult to get buy-in in their organizations to pursue what is perceived to be highly conceptual, to get to the highly pragmatic results. Cross has been instrumental in taking the discipline through this challenging stage, to where the tangible and immensely powerful outcomes of well-executed ONA are evident. The discipline is just starting to go beyond the pioneers into the mainstream. From here, expect to see the hype pick up, the vendors to jump on board, for possibly much ONA work to be done poorly which will impact on the discipline’s reputation, and so on in the usual management trend cycle. However that is only because this is indeed one of the most powerful – and relevant in the current economy – management interventions available today, and it is very much in a state of emergence.

I am currently working through the analysis of a network study I’m doing of the communication among the top 100 executives of a $3 billion diversified professional firm. The insights from the study into the company’s drivers of success are extraordinary, and when we workshop this with the top executive team, there is no question that it will significantly influence what action the company takes to move to the next level of success. The same issue of BusinessWeek also features an interview with Kate Ehrlich of IBM, who has been at the center of IBM’s work in applying ONA across the organization, including in innovation and sales effectiveness. Ehrlich, Cross, and I are currently working on a journal article that brings together some of our work and perspectives. More on this and other very tangible outcomes from the ONA work being done globally coming soon on this blog. This is an enormouly exciting space to be involved in.