Organizational Network Analysis: Making the Invisible Visible

MySpace and Facebook often are held up as the new “Holy Grails” of enterprise education.

MySpace and Facebook often are held up as the new “Holy Grails” of enterprise education. Many learning leaders think harnessing the potential of social networking tools will enable them to reach the next generation of workers and connect their organizations at all levels.

Yet, although these tools’ possible uses have been discussed at length at conferences and think tanks around the globe, few have successfully implemented corporate networking systems.

At this year’s Fall 2007 CLO Symposium, Sally Colella, executive coach and team facilitator for Colella & Associates, discussed the value of informal organizational networks and described how companies can leverage their benefits by mapping communication channels within their ranks.

In collaboration with Professor Rob Cross, his colleagues at the University of Virginia and representatives of about 60 organizations, Colella is researching the value of organization network analysis — the study of how organizations create networks, how those networks benefit individuals and organizations and how organizations can maximize those results.

To examine these issues, researchers ask target populations to fill out a short survey that asks specific questions about how they share information, innovate and learn key topics, Colella said in an interview prior to her session.

From those questionnaires, Colella and her associates can create a map that shows where collaboration is and is not happening in the organization and identify individuals critical to connecting different subgroups within the business.

“Those individuals who will willingly share information with us, who really help us solve the tough problems — that’s really the network that we’re looking for,” she said. “This network perspective makes what’s been invisible visible, so you can create a tangible, actionable map of what’s going on.”

With these maps, business can more effectively identify where certain values and aspects of their cultures are embedded. With this information, companies can see which groups are misaligned with the organization’s culture and identify where behavior-change initiatives need to start, Colella explained.

When both the best-connected people and the areas most in need of alignment are identified, companies can enlist those “tipping-point” people to drive organizational change in a much faster and more targeted way.

The best way to implement the changes networking technologies can leverage is through existing learning and development programs, Colella said. By giving new employees a network perspective during the onboarding process, they can get connected to the organization earlier and in a more meaningful way, which will increase retention rates.

Leadership programs are another natural fit for using this kind of information, Colella said. For supervisors who need to adapt to driving work through others instead of doing it themselves, having a better network perspective can help them better delegate their workload and influence their reports.

“It just gives individuals one more lens for them to use when thinking about how they are working with others,” Colella said.

Although people have been mentally “envisioning” and leveraging these networks for decades, actually drawing a map and tangibly connecting individuals and teams allows leaders across an organization to develop a common and consistent view of their company’s communication structure, she said.

“For me, there’s both a connection to the past and a ladder to the future — which is just becoming more and more conscious of how we manage things that have been done unconsciously and randomly,” Colella said. “We’re giving everyone really concrete tools to learn about their networks, to build those networks better and then, over time, to continue to take very vivid snapshots of how those networks are evolving.”