In times of talent shortages, it's more important than ever to identify the employees who may be among the most valuable to the organization but are hiding in plain sight. They're the employees others go to for the next big materials processing idea, the next cost cutting opportunity, the next new product. These innovation catalysts can't be found on the organization chart. They're usually unrecognized, unrewarded -- and often unlikely to stay.
Businesses are identifying their innovation catalysts by using a powerful diagnostic tool called social network analysis (SNA).
SNA identifies the innovation catalysts with the aid of an employee survey that shows which employees are collaborating with which others. These relationships are illustrated in a hubs and spokes diagram resembling an airline route map. A statistical analysis describes each player in the network with key metrics.
The diagram also shows where there are "white spaces" in the organization -- areas where there are too few connections between employees whose collaboration is needed. SNA has identified disconnects even between leaders of functional areas where there must be collaboration.
Armored with the knowledge SNA provides, management can fill in the white spaces and leverage its innovation catalysts' effectiveness. It can replicate the company's most productive networks by redefining roles, staffing levels and resource allocation throughout the business. Here are some of the initiatives that SNA makes possible:
- A satellite communications company is recognizing and rewarding the contributions made by hitherto unrecognized innovation catalysts to help increase job satisfaction. This has resulted in improved performance as well as increased employee retention.
- Businesses are assigning the innovation catalysts to lead new projects that provide top-line revenue growth. The catalysts are first trained and empowered to secure the needed resources. These projects include the deployment of long-range strategic initiatives as well as the meeting of immediate goals in time spans as short as 90 days. An SNA-based project helped a business secure a multi-billion dollar contract from the Department of Homeland Security.
- SNA helps companies create additional catalysts by training other employees to use the collaborative skills that the catalysts deploy. Businesses also are encouraging application of catalyst skills by redesigning their performance metrics.
- The pending retirement of an entire generation of workers can threaten the survival of a company. SNA helps meet the challenge for identifying the catalysts whose replacements must be recruited in advance as well as the employees who are less connected and who, research shows, are more likely to leave than connected employees are.
- An SNA study can help a company scope out the strengths and weaknesses of a prospective M&A partner and integrate its employees into the business with greater ease than it had anticipated. Leaders who are new to an organization will quickly understand the dynamics of the workforce with SNA. Leaders who must make headcount reductions will make value-based decisions. SNA also helps a business evaluate prospective outsourcing partners.
- SNA identifies innovation barriers. Employees may have few connections for a very good reason: their function is specialized and separated by design. But employees may be disconnected for other reasons. They can include limitations of job design, hierarchical fortification, isolation due to distance, support staff weaknesses, or a faulty orientation process. A technology company discovered there was a lack of trust of employees who came from an acquired competitor.
- An SNA study can pinpoint bottlenecks. Some employees may have too many connections, having become the nexus of too many processes. This is often the reason for project delays and cost overruns.
- Businesses are accelerating the sharing of knowledge with SNA. A company's strategic business unit found that employees were depending solely on their peers for knowledge. At any organization, once the network's ebb and flow is understood, everyone is encouraged to contribute and the time needed to locate and access needed information quickens. Best practices are adopted more easily. With improved communications there is greater acceptance of diversity and the building of norms that discourage unproductive behavior in ways that mandates cannot.
SNA can be a one-time initiative or ongoing, with each repetition generating further improvements. However it is deployed, to be successful it must be led by senior management. The diagnosis it produces identifies and helps facilitate a wide range of activities that provide top-line and bottom-line results. It can become a transforming event, helping a faltering business become mighty and a stronger one gain dominance.
Tracy Cox is Director of Performance Consulting for Raytheon Professional Services LLC, a business of Raytheon Co. that improves clients' business performance. Its capabilities include learning strategy development, curriculum design and development in multiple formats, training delivery management, learning technology systems and performance consulting. For more information see www.rps.com.