Degrees of separation: After all, it is who you know

Organizational network analysis reveals how people’s interpersonal relationships affect a workgroup's effectiveness.

With government’s highly systematized pay grades, titles, ranks, organizational charts and job descriptions, you might think agency executives have a pretty good handle on how work gets done and who their key players are. But in many cases, you’d be wrong.

That’s because an org chart will not show that the department veteran who found her way through four reassignments, weathered a half-dozen regime changes and now sits in a small regional office is the person decision-makers at headquarters should consult when they need a long view and some institutional perspective. And it won’t show that the policy and compliance units barely interact — even though they are supposed to — because the two bosses can’t stand each other.

The desire to get at those inner truths is the reason why a growing number of agencies are following the cue of many in the private sector and turning to organizational network analysis (ONA), a technique for mapping and evaluating interpersonal relationships in the workplace — or the informal networks. It can also map decision-making processes and the way information flows within groups.

“It’s like an X-ray that helps reveal what’s going on in an organization under the surface,” said Valdis Krebs, chief scientist at Orgnet.com, an ONA consulting firm and software developer.

That kind of insight can be especially valuable for government agencies, which often lack the private sector’s ready-made metrics for evaluating performance, such as profits or the number of widgets produced. Instead, information is the lifeblood of many government operations, and collaboration is the circulatory system. But any number of problems can hinder an organization’s effectiveness.

“ONA is a good tool to understand the human factor in our communication networks so that we can improve productivity or understand why we fail in some areas,” said Leni Oman, director of the Office of Research and Library Services at the Washington State Department of Transportation, in describing her organization’s use of ONA.

However, as is often the case, the biggest investment with ONA is not necessarily the fees for consulting services, data gathering or software but the management commitment needed to convert the findings into action and an ongoing process of change, measurement and improvement.

Despite ONA’s promise, that attention and follow-through have often been in short supply in government projects, to the frustration of those who have seen firsthand just how valuable a workplace X-ray can be.

Why it matters

Government executives face a host of challenges that ONA can help them better understand and address. Some issues are long-standing, such as the organizational silos that can make collaboration across geographic, functional or jurisdictional lines difficult.

ONA can help leaders break down those silos by identifying key employees in different departments or offices who are brokers, those who have lots of connections to others, said Rob Cross, an associate professor of management at the University of Virginia, an ONA consultant and the author of two books on the subject. And better connecting those brokers by creating a semi-formal group called a community of practice can result in increased communication among all employees.

Interest in improving communication among multidisciplinary networks was what prompted Washington state transportation officials to consider ONA, Oman said.

Agencies can also benefit by recruiting brokers to be the lead adopters when they deploy a new collaborative tool, such as an internal social network application. “You can get a 30 percent or so better uptake by targeting them versus diffusing it blindly,” Cross said. “It’s much more efficient than just throwing a collaborative tool out there and saying, ‘Good luck with it.’”

In addition, ONA can help agencies address issues that have recently become more problematic, such as the brain drain resulting from baby boomer retirements. As agencies are discovering, the knowledge inside a person’s head is not the only thing that walks out the door on retirement day.

“More hurtful in many cases are the networks they disrupt, the way they hold things together,” Cross said.

The Defense Intelligence Agency conducted several ONA evaluations a few years ago and found a strong correlation between a person’s network diversity and higher performance.

By profiling what the brokers and high performers are doing and what their networks look like for a given role, agency leaders can use targeted mechanisms, such as rotating assignments and mentoring programs, to help up-and-comers replicate seasoned networks.

“Companies and agencies have done this forever on an expertise or competency basis, but they are just starting to pick this up on the network basis,” Cross said.

Government downsizing is creating new problems that ONA can help address. For example, as the remaining employees take on new responsibilities, they can become over-connected, and decision-making bottlenecks can crop up, Cross said. Also, well-functioning collaborative links between departments can be disrupted by the departure or reassignment of a few key employees.

The Virginia Department of Transportation, which saw its workforce shrink from 9,000 to 7,500 employees in the past two years, plans to do a comprehensive ONA this summer involving about 5,000 employees, said Maureen Hammer, the department’s knowledge management officer. Virginia officials have already used ONA for two smaller projects.

“We’ve got a lot of new people in a lot of new roles, so our leadership wants a snapshot to see where the problems are and where we need to prioritize our efforts for leadership training or setting up communities of practice,” Hammer said. “Then we’ll go back later and see if what we’re doing is working.”

The fundamentals

The data that is the basis for an ONA and its graphical network maps can be collected by conducting employee surveys; tracking the use of online tools such as e-mail, wikis and other collaboration systems; or a combination of those methods.

Transportation officials in Virginia and Washington worked with Cross on their ONA projects and used his group’s questionnaires and analysis and mapping software. Cross said an initial project can cost about $35,000 to $75,000, depending on the scope. Krebs’ firm Orgnet.com likewise offers consulting services and an analysis and visualization software tool called InFlow.

Once data about interactions is collected and used to create network maps, analysts must put the findings into perspective while taking into account the circumstances of the group under review. For example, in one of the two groups studied in Washington, most of the leaders had relatively few connections to others, which seemed odd given their roles. However, their responsibilities reached far beyond the group being studied, so their peripheral position in that context was not deemed a concern.

The results of an initial ONA are often eye-opening, Cross said. He routinely asks who leaders believe are the key players or top talent in their organizations and compares those answers to the people that the network analysis reveals to be the central players. He said the two lists typically have an overlap of less than 40 percent.

Ray Horoho made a similar discovery when he did a network analysis shortly after he was appointed director of administration and resources at the Army’s Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Training about three years ago. (He is now retired from the military and serving as senior human capital executive at the Center for Human Capital Innovation.) The previous director had a top-heavy leadership style, and Horoho wanted to understand who the key players were and how work got done before he made any changes.

“I wanted to find out in this very stovepiped organization who talks to who and who doesn’t talk to who,” Horoho said. “Also, when I go forward to make changes, who are the folks who have the ear and trust in the organization outside the line-chart hierarchy so I can get their help with buy-in.”

Surprisingly enough, the analysis revealed that one of the lowest ranking individuals in the organization was one of the most important people on the staff. Horoho worked with that employee to better understand the organization’s dynamics and help promote his agenda for change.

The hurdles

In an ideal scenario, an organization would use the findings from an ONA to craft a set of interventions, give those changes some time to work, then do a follow-up analysis to measure their effectiveness and fine-tune further action, said Shane Brown, an assistant professor at Washington State University who conducted the two ONAs for the state’s transportation department.

That approach takes a steady commitment in terms of management attention and funding, which is by no means easy in the public sector these days. Washington transportation officials were pleased with their ONAs and have used the results to make some organizational tweaks and take steps to improve communication. But unfortunately, time constraints and tight budgets have prevented them from following up further or analyzing other groups.

Interestingly, an issue identified in one of the ONAs eventually affected the group’s ability to do more with the study results. The analysis identified three people as critical to how information moved in that network. All three have since moved on, diminishing, as expected, that group’s communication effectiveness, Oman said.

After some early success, one of the two ONA projects at Virginia’s transportation department was similarly derailed by budget cuts. The other project was more of a test proof of ONA for a one-time project.

Horoho said ONA was extremely useful in helping him get his footing and make some needed changes in the office he took over, but he left his position before ONA could become a regular tool that others used to guide business process improvement in that office or elsewhere in the organization.

Another set of challenges relates to the surveys that workers fill out. Washington state officials expected their questionnaires to take about 15 to 20 minutes to complete, but they ended up taking closer to an hour, which hampered participation. In the future, the survey needs to be shorter, Oman said.

Employees might also resist participating or answering honestly if they fear how the results will be used. ONA surveys can include questions that ask respondents to rate co-workers’ effectiveness in providing the information they need to do their jobs. Horoho said that in hindsight he probably launched his ONA too soon after taking over, before he had employees’ trust.

Krebs said that because of the difficulties with surveys, his clients are using them less frequently and are instead analyzing traffic data from e-mail and other collaboration systems.

Executives are unlikely to order major reorganizations as a result of an ONA alone, Krebs said. But an ONA can be indispensable for spotting budding areas of concern and coming up with plans to keep them from becoming bigger problems later.

NEXT STORY: Management theory and practice

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.