What is ONA? What can I use it for?

In all organizations, employees create informal groups with whom they interact on a regular basis. We all know someone in our company that we can reach out to if we need help solving a technical issue, or that other person that we can trust for personal support with a work-related problem. These spontaneous connections are of critical importance, since they define the way knowledge is generated, distributed and retained across an organization.

The problem is, that these connections are not always created in a predictable manner or between those employees that can most benefit from being more connected. Because of this, in order to design an effective organization, it is essential to understand where these connections exist or should exist.

This issue can be addressed by leveraging the capabilities of Organizational Network Analysis, a method that has been utilized for more than 20 years but has recently grown in importance thanks to the integration of new technological developments.

Organizational Network Analysis allows you to visualize and analyze both formal and informal relationships that exist within your organization, enabling you to model a business strategy that effectively exchanges information and ideas to help your company thrive in a rapidly changing environment.

In practice, Organizational Network Analysis allows you to see what is happening inside of your organization with an unprecedented level of detail. This helps you identify informal leaders and leverage their influence in strategic roles, whether it is in managerial positions or as early adopters of organizational changes.

There are two ways to implement ONA: active ONA leverages an online survey and passive ONA relies on the employee's digital footprint.

Active ONA

Active ONA refers to the implementation of ONA through an ad-hoc online survey, which is aimed to map informal interactions between employees. This enables the identification of informal leaders within the organization, also referred to as hidden talent or top influencers (positive or negative).

Recent research reveals that if a company identifies the 3% of employees who possess informal leadership, it can turn them into early adopters and influence up to 85% of the remaining population, thus accelerating the adoption of strategic changes.

Active ONA consists in mapping informal relationships between employees through an online survey, which captures different types of informal interactions. In the survey, employees identify who they interact with and how they interact with each other.

Each employee needs approximately 5-10 minutes to complete the survey, where a series of multi-tier look up questions will enable user-friendly identification of colleagues in large organizations. A company typically needs 2 weeks to implement an active ONA survey, and the results can reflect the whole organization even with a level of participation as low as 40%. This is because even if an employee does not participate in the survey, he/she might be reflected in the analysis after being identified by a colleague.

Once the informal interactions have been captured through the online survey, they are visualized in an interactive network where employees are categorized by level of influence (central, intermediary and peripheral). These categories are based on the position the employee holds in an automated ranking based on the results from the online survey.

When assessing an employee's level of influence it is important to take into consideration the employee's role. An employee working in a technical help desk role might provide technical support to a large number of people within the organization, but this does not necessarily mean he/she is an informal leader. Because of this, the algorithm should consider all types of interactions when ranking the employees, which enables us to reduce the impact of noise introduced by the employee's roles.

Source: Cognitive Talent Solutions

It is also important to assess whether the employee's level of influence is aligned with the expectations given his/her role and level of experience. For example, a senior employee in a managerial role will be expected to occupy a central position in the network, while the same level of influence will be deemed to be above expectations for a non-managerial, junior employee.

Source: Cognitive Talent Solutions

Passive ONA

Passive ONA refers to the implementation of ONA by monitoring employee's digital footprint. As its name indicates, passive ONA leverages passive data sources from a variety of collaborative tools, including but not limited to corporate email, Jira, Github and internal social media channels.

David Green (Insight222) says the following about passive ONA: "Passive ONA provides a different and complementary view as it runs continuously - often across the entire company. It provides an objective, unbiased view of how people are actually working and collaborating. It can also be used to automatically measure changes in network behaviours after an initiative or corporate event has taken place, such as following an M&A or significant restructure."

When it comes to visualizing the results of passive Organizational Network Analysis there are two main scenarios: the inside view and the inside out view. Each scenario has different characteristics:

The inside view focuses on visualizing and analyzing the interactions between employees of an organization, without capturing the interactions of those employees with external stakeholders.

The inside out view focuses on visualizing and analyzing the interactions between employees from a specific department and external stakeholders such as clients, prospects or business partners. Examples of external passive ONA include mapping the interactions between Customer Services roles and the customers they provide support to, or mapping the interactions between Key Account Managers and existing/prospective clients.

Source: Cognitive Talent Solutions

Use Cases

Change Management

ONA leverages active and passive data sources to visualise and analyse how employees interact in an organisation, enabling the identification of informal leaders who can be turned into early adopters of strategic changes to accelerate adoption. Active ONA (based on an online survey) is generally more effective than passive ONA (based on digital footprint) for the purpose of identifying informal leaders, since the connection captured in the survey implies a recognition of value. However, the combination of both active and passive ONA is the ideal scenario given the scalability of passive ONA, especially in the context of large initiatives.

Source: Cognitive Talent Solutions

Based on Cognitive Talent Solutions research, the influence of top informal leaders is 40% greater than the average influence of managers. By positioning informal leaders as early adopters of strategic changes, executive teams can mitigate the three risks that make up the change adoption trap:

Leadership Development

In the context of leadership development programs, ONA can enhance the identification of high potential employees (HiPOs) by considering social capital metrics when assessing potential candidates. The goal is to ensure that successful candidates are simultaneously 1) high performers identified by their immediate supervisors and HR vetting process, and 2) informal leaders identified by their peers.

Once the successful candidates have joined the leadership development program, ONA can help them raise awareness about their leadership style by visualizing and analyzing the way the interact with their peers. This exercise enhances the value provided by the leadership development program and help the future leaders of the organization get exposure to the integration of social capital metrics in strategic decision-making processes.


The onboarding process is a time when employees need to feel welcomed to the team and have everything clearly explained to them so that they can hit full productivity in their new role faster. Active ONA enables the identification of informal leaders, who can be positioned as "buddies" to new hires during their adaptation period. This results in shorter time-to-productivity, lower turnover risk and a better employee experience for the new hire.

Source: Cognitive Talent Solutions

Post Merger Integration

Common problems that may be encountered during post merger integrations include resistance to change, divided loyalties, blurred roles and responsibilities, unclear reporting relationships, communication tangles, job insecurity, unusual employee turnover, and infighting. 

In the context of post-merger integrations, organizational network analysis (ONA) can help companies accelerate and increase the adoption of the different strategic changes that need to be implemented by positioning informal leaders as early adopters.

Source: Cognitive Talent Solutions

Moreover, once the post-merger integration has been completed, ONA can help companies measure the effectiveness of the integration by analyzing whether the employees are sticking to their previous connections on the legacy organizations or they are creating additional connections in the new organizational structure. The level of integration between teams is compared against performance metrics at department level, thus providing a framework to measure the impact of the integration on the organization's performance and helping the company identify opportunities for improvement.

Organizational Silo Mitigation

Organizational Network Analysis, combined with AI-powered algorithms, can be a powerful tool to identify and mitigate organizational silos, whether the connections between employees are mapped through active or passive data sources. It can also identify employees who are acting as a bottleneck or as a bridge, providing actionable insights to implement mitigation actions when needed.

Source: Cognitive Talent Solutions

The concept of organizational silo is also related to employee isolation. People may feel disconnected, distracted or somewhat disoriented due to a natural unfamiliarity with being away from their place of work. This can lower productivity and engagement and increase turnover risk. Both active and passive ONA allow for the identification of employees who have a peripheral position in the organizational network, enabling the implementation of proactive mitigation actions. Active ONA enables pairing peripheral employees with informal leaders to prevent a potential disconnect from the team's network. Passive ONA enables companies to monitor whether managers are scheduling one-to-one meetings with their employees on a regular basis, which is particularly relevant when it comes to preventing employee disengagement.

Burnout Risk Assessment

Passive ONA can help companies assess employee burnout risk by monitoring indicators in the employee's digital footprint such as the percentage of communications outside of working hours, the percentage of unread messages or the average response time among others. This enables companies to identify potential employee burnout scenarios in a proactive manner and implement mitigations when needed.

Source: Cognitive Talent Solutions


In a new reality characterized by its volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, Organizational Network Analysis empowers your company to operate in a more agile fashion, leveraging the influence of informal leaders to maximize business success. Over the last years, technological developments in data visualization and data warehousing have increased the relevance of ONA in business environments. More recent developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) will lead to the discovery of new use cases, resulting in an even greater adoption of ONA and its consolidation as one of the pillars in the field of People Analytics.

For anybody interested in learning more about ONA, David Green's article "The role of Organisational Network Analysis in People Analytics" is a must-read. This comprehensive piece of work covers ONA's concept, types, historical context, use cases and case studies among others.

Categories: Blog

Cognitive Talent Solutions

Cognitive Talent Solutions focuses its activity on Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) and Organizational Restructuring powered by AI. ONA allows you to visualize and analyze both formal and informal relationships that exist within your organization, enabling you to model a business strategy that effectively exchanges information and ideas to help your company thrive in a rapidly changing environment.