ONA or organizational network analysis, a proven tool for people analytics for nearly 30 years, is experiencing a genuine growth spurt from technology and new business requirements.
Its adoption rate is still tiny. But now that the broader category of people analytics itself seems finally to have reached majority adoption–and HR’s guilt about not using it can stop–attention is turning to ONA.
Proof of this point can be found in the more than a dozen vendors are now selling it.
Most of us are more familiar with the allied category of SNA or social network analysis. Who hasn’t seen the spider web of people posting tweets after a major industry conference? But what does that tell you besides who uses Twitter to keep notes of conference sessions or who sees it as a major opportunity to promote themselves? Okay, some genuinely want to share what they know.
Instead, ONA’s spider webs reveal who is actually working with one another in an organization: In short, the formerly invisible real org chart we all knew has always existed within the much less useful formal chart showing departments and reporting responsibilities.
At a time when everyone seems to realize “It’s the teams, stupid,” ONA makes them so much more visible.
Valdis Krebs was the first full-time HR practitioner to use ONA back in the early ’90s, when he ran big HCM systems for TRW, Disney, Ford and Toyota. As the ONA contractor for the IBM Consulting Group, Valdis co-presented with some of its members and shared clients back then at the HR Technology Conference. Interest was so slim, two people attended his session, but he remembers them being very engaged!
Valdis had more than his 15 minutes of fame following 9/11, by using public information and newspaper articles to produce a partial map of the organization behind the attacks.
His paper, Uncloaking Terrorist Networks, has been called a classic, and likely the most-cited public analysis of the 9/11 network. After publishing it, he was the darling of Washington intelligence contractors for a while.
Valdis formally started his company Orgnet LLC, developer of InFlow software, in 1995.
Starting work in a then non-networked corporate world, Valdis relied on surveys for the data, a method now called “active” ONA. He and his team had the same challenges as all large corporate surveys: custom written, hard to get responses, long analysis time.
About one-third of his projects still use surveys, but now, like all the vendors who have followed him, Valdis uses corporate email and internal social networks to discover employees’ real connections.
Co-Founder and CEO Manish Goel of TrustSphere is also a former Director at PwC Consulting (acquired by IBM) who worked within their Strategic Change group. Manish smartly started his ONA work focused on corporate salesforces, discovering through their emails how connected they are to clients, prospects and one another. He’s smart because companies will always spend money on something that promises to help the sales force sell more.
TrustSphere, with three separate products, has been able to show direct connections between the number of communications and sales. A partnership with Salesforce allows it to load missing relationships and missing activities directly into the hugely successful customer-relationship-management software, which some salespeople still don’t like typing into.
TrustSphere gathers most of its data through email, focusing on the “to:” and “from:” fields only and maybe measuring the length of the text, never reading it. Obviously, data privacy is a big issue in ONA work, and the company was also smart putting “trust” in its name.
More expensive projects use other “passive” sources beyond email: analyzing employee traffic on Slack, Workplace by Facebook and Microsoft Teams. A worldwide organization, TrustSphere can also use WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom and other communications applications.
Two years ago, it successfully pivoted to HR, where it now has 50 clients. It’s very strong in the mid-market, but also with Fortune 500 companies.
It offers HR possible solutions to three different problem sets through its ONA:
Leadership & Talent
- Leadership development
- HiPo identification
- Onboarding acceleration
- Retention/counter offers
- Succession planning
Diversity & Inclusion
- Gender inclusiveness
Goel says, “While D&I is our fastest selling product, diversity is a lot easier to measure than inclusiveness. We could discover at one client how women, though more had been hired, continued to be cut out of communications.”
Network of Teams
- Influencers/change ambassadors
- Post-merger integration
- Organizational transformation
The third area is my favorite, because teams–always so loosely documented–can finally be uncovered. Also, the often-ignored people part of M&As can be investigated.
ONA adoption is not exactly shooting through the roof. Lexy Martin, who ran the Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey for 17 years, is now a principal at leading people analytics vendor Visier, which has a partnership with TrustSphere. Her “The Age of People Analytics Research Report” reveals that only 5 percent of organizations are using ONA, but most of them are finding it valuable.
If you are seriously interested in this subject, the best industry overview I’ve read is “The Role of Organisational Network Analysis in People Analytics,” by analytics expert David Green. While it has a definite TrustSphere slant (no surprise, given he’s on its board of advisors), the real danger is time it could end up occupying for compulsive researchers, since it includes a list of 14 vendors in the domain and 32 articles about it!
Another indication that our world is catching up with ONA.