Sunday, February 14, 2010

Organizational Network Analysis: Impact of Proximity on Collaboration

Where I work, the e-learning team occupies 4 large rows with instructional designers, graphic designers, programmers, technicians, project managers spread out and rubbing shoulders in happy abandon. The team's manager sits within 3 feet of the team and can not only observe every member but can also walk up to offer quick assistance/advice whenever needed.

A few weeks back, there was talk of moving a part of the e-learning team working on a specific project to a different building altogether. This information disturbed me deeply, and I raised this concern with the manager and a few other members as well. Somehow, to me, this seemed to be the opening up of a severe fault line in the project. However, I could neither quantify it nor rationalize it. But the hunch was so intense that I could not ignore it either.

Ironically, it was not going to affect me at all as I was already scheduled to travel. But I could almost sense the negative impact such a shift would have on this critical project.

Today, as I sat reading (once again) Informal Learning by Jay Cross in a distant hotel room in Westbrook, Connecticut, the point on Organizational Network Analysis hit me. I wish I had recalled it in time to support my hunch with facts.

I have paraphrased a few points from the book (pages 69-71):
Rob Cross is the founder and research director of the Network Roundtable, a consortium of 40 learning organizations working with UVA faculty to apply network techniques to critical business issues.

Using Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) to pinpoint the vulnerability of the informal organization, one of the key findings was that:

"...the ONA demonstrated the extent to which the production division had become separated from the overall network. Several months prior to the analysis, these people had been physically moved to a different floor in the building. On reviewing the network diagram, many of the executives realized that this physical separation had resulted in loss of a lot of the serendipitous meetings that occurred..."

These informal meetings are part of the shadow organization that runs behind (under the radar of) every formal organization. While the formal organization facilitates systematic, process driven work, the informal enables innovation, learning, just-in-time information, productivity and quality improvement, improved job satisfaction....

And analysis also shows that most knowledge workers are likely to turn to their neighbor to discuss a problem than consult a database. By facilitating such "turning to one's neighbor" possibilities and ensuring that the right contacts are closely located in the workplace, an organization can immensely improve quality, productivity and morale.

Many forward looking companies have redesigned their work space to enable interaction and collaboration, to connect people who need to be connected. 

For a deeper understanding, read: What is ONA?
and pf course, Informal Learning.


  1. Hi - Over half a century ago this was institutionalized by Hewlett and Packard. It's called Next Bench. Today it is a part of proxinomics and clusters, e.g.,

    Glad it's being 'discovered.'

    It’s Back to the Future, baby.


  2. Thank you for the comment. I was actually referring to the HP experiment. But didn't mention it. Thank you for bringing it up and for the link. :)

  3. Was wondering how this theory explains best practice when working in a distributed environment which is more of a reality than a cluster group in a single location?

  4. Coincidently, I am reading the “Connections” chapter of Jay Cross’ Informal Learning. This chapter (in addition to your blog) prompts my thinking and reflection on my current career search.

    As you mentioned, Jay Cross cited the research of Rob Cross and Andrew Parker which asks subjects if they were an energizer or a de-energizer. By definition, a de-energizer has a sole focus on completing tasks and may seem isolated from others within the environment. By contrast, the de-energizer completes task and builds relationships. The value of an energizer is establishing and maintaining relationships which contribute to information flow and identifying untapped expertise.

    Identifying the energizers within an organization (or becoming one) is a critical for the organization and for performance improvement professionals. When looking for an SME or an exemplar performer don’t ask the person at the top of the organization chart – ask an energizer. In addition, focus on energizers as network sources for career search and client search. The challenge is that an “energizer” does not seem to be a common job title.


Thank you for visiting my blog and for taking the time to post your thoughts.

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