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Getting a Grip on Data in Motion to Understand How We Collaborate


Cisco Collaboration Services is offering an exciting new service called Organizational Network Analysis (ONA), which we’ve developed to help companies give meaning to that massive amount of data generated by email, instant messaging, web conferencing, TelePresence, and other collaborative tools. ONA quantifies how people use these social tools to predict how creative, innovative, and productive they are within the teams they work.

Of course, companies have been investing in these sorts of technologies for many years with the belief they would encourage more collaboration among workers and make communication faster and easier. But, until now, there has been no way to measure the true impact of these collaborative tools. Yes, there have been various ways to capture metrics including inventories of tools, surveys of users, and benchmarking, which measures employees’ real use of tools and compares it with best practices.

Take a look at this “It’s the Connections that Matter Most” infographic which helps illustrate the meaningful insight ONA finally brings to light.

I recently had a great conversation with Dr. Peter Gloor from MIT’s Sloan School of Management and two of my colleagues from the Cisco collaboration practice, Dave Bauhs and Stori Hybbeneth, about this breakthrough service, how it came to be, and what organizations can gain from it. I invite you to read the transcript now:


Hans: Dave, talk about how we took another leap forward towards measuring the impact collaboration products and applications can have on an organization. How did we begin to arrive at ONA?

Dave: Cisco developed ONA with the help of Dr. Peter Gloor, a research scientist at MIT and an early pioneer of social network analytics (SNA). SNA is the science of understanding social networking patterns within organizations so they can increase worker productivity, innovation, and the return on investment from those tools. By combining forces with Peter, we are able to take the analysis of collaborative tools to a new level. Cisco brings “data in motion” to the equation – real data in real time on Cisco products – and Peter provides a tool that draws correlations from this data. ONA allows you to graphically view the collaboration between individuals within an organization and measure the effectiveness of those relationships.

Hans: Peter, how did you realize the concept of social network analysis could be applied to the business environment?

Peter: Intuitively it was clear to me, but I had no way of proving it. This was one of the key motivators for me to leave my role as a partner at Deloitte Consulting [E-Business practice for Europe] and go back to MIT Sloan and study social networks from the inside. And I didn’t really know the technology existed. And then I discovered there is a science called social network analysis. In the beginning, it was all qualitative, but then we started comparing business success metrics against how people collaborated individually and as teams. This allowed us to begin to answer questions such as: “Is an organization efficient?” and “Is it creative?” and “How do these variables map to business success?” These were the things that interested me most.

In the early days, I worked in knowledge management, and we could never prove that knowledge management was a good thing. We just knew it somehow. It has taken us nearly 11 years, but we have put together a communication score card with a small number of variables based on how you network – with email, with WebEx, with IM, and so on – to be better, more creative, more productive and drive better business results.

Hans: How did you then move on to collaboration and how people work together?

Peter: The old thinking was that new ideas are developed by a creative genius sitting in his office, at his desk and cooking up something great. New thinking is that nothing happens in isolation; it’s all about collaboration. And that’s why I developed this idea of the Collaborative Innovation Network (COIN). The better one collaborates, the better the ideas. There are many smart people who have great ideas, but not everybody is Thomas Alva Edison. Edison was as famous for being a great collaborator as an inventor. As a result, he was a good leader.

Good collaborators need to be strong leaders. You have to have strong, stubborn opinions, but you also need to be a great communicator, and have a talent for recruiting other talented people and working with them. So how then do you measure great collaborators? You measure it through social network analysis. With social network analysis, you have variables that are very tangible, which will tell you how good a collaborator you are and what you can do to be more productive.

Hans: What’s your opinion of telecommuting or allowing workers to work from home?

Peter: What I find is there is no substitute for face to face. Humans are super social animals. We draw energy from being among like-minded people in the same room. You can still effectively do that long distance, and cameras help. That’s why it’s much better to turn on the camera, in a conference call for example, than to only have the voice. Successfully collaborating is usually 90% long distance and 10% re-energizing in face-to-face meetings.

Dave: I’d like to add that an organization’s culture has to change from one of taking attendance to one of setting and managing against goals. That’s a big change for a lot of organizations and scary for some managers.

Hans: What kinds of data sources do you analyze that enable you to gain insight into the effectiveness of innovation and collaboration?

Peter: We do three layers of analysis:

  1. External connections
  2. Thought leadership in the outside world – for example, what people are saying about Cisco or some new technology or some people on Twitter and Facebook wall posts
  3. Internal connections.

Hans: How do you make the connection from the “viewing” of collaboration to then understanding that it is creating innovation?

Peter: We have studied many innovation networks. If we speak celestially, we could say that there are two main innovation networks. One is where everyone is a star, which is not so strong a network. The other one poses, “Don’t be a star, be a galaxy.” If you have groups where everybody talks to everybody, where all the stars are connected and aligned and communicating, that’s a good indicator of successful innovation. But by far the best indicator is rotation in “leadership” within team interactions. What I mean by that is you communicate as a star (leader), then you rotate from star to galaxy where everybody talks to everybody, then back to star pattern, back to galaxy, and it goes back and forth. And this creates opportunities for the rotation in leadership.

In our analysis, we looked at how networks change over time. And that works really well with external communication whether it’s IM or email. If you see how individuals rotate roles – they are central, non-central, central, non-central – that’s one of the best predictor responses for creativity.

A “galaxy” network of communication indicates successful innovation. 

A “galaxy” network of communication indicates successful innovation.

Dave: Innovation is hard to find. It rarely sits behind one person’s title. This approach lets you look at parts of the organization you don’t even think of as sources of innovation. Many, many different groups can and should be innovating. ONA allows you to look across the organization and identify where innovation is happening and where nothing is happening. Very few groups should have no innovation happening. An IT group can be critical for enabling sales, for example.

Hans: Is the quality also there? Does the innovation in that pattern also equal quality?

Peter: We always have correlation. We can say with 80% correlation of such and such a pattern when all five variables are there (strong leadership, responsiveness, taking the initiative, oscillation, honest language -- very positive and very negative words are used), there is a high chance you have a high quality, creative team.

Hans: But in monitoring things like IMs and emails, don’t you risk the perception you are invading people’s privacy?

Peter: Yes, very much so. This is very much dependent on culture – national culture, company culture – and also individual behavior.

In fact, in my very first project I was proposing to a CTO to do an email analysis, and I got kicked out! At that time, I was so excited about what we were doing, and I almost gave up on it when I was turned away. That was 12-1/2 years ago, but I learned that I needed to explain one simple rule: our process isn’t about spying on an individual and reporting behavior to managers. This is about sharing aggregate collaboration patterns among people within groups and patterns between groups. Privacy is always a question that comes up. Now we tackle it head on.

Dave: With ONA, we can do this analysis at three levels of anonymity. At the organizational level, you might be one of 50 or 500. At the anonymous user level, we know this person has this behavior pattern, but we don’t know who that person is. And the last one is if we’re going to look at the particular-person level, we’ll ask you to opt in.

Stori: You can always up-level the graphics so they’re not representative of an individual; they’re representative of an aggregate group to see how major groups are interacting.

Hans: Do you really have to look into the content of emails or IMs to understand the patterns?

Peter: We are never interested in full content here. Our goal is to look at the emotion and the connections. You can study emotion, for example, by just matching the content with the person who sent it to know how happy or unhappy your communication is or how happy or unhappy your team is. We don’t care about the individuals, only about the aggregated emotionality. That is a great predictor of creativity, of team satisfaction, and of future project success. It’s very worthwhile.

Hans: So clearly there is a value for understanding innovation. What other areas of business value do you see organizations getting by applying these same disciplines?

Peter: We have looked at a lot of things. We have looked at sales teams, call center teams, nurses. There are countless opportunities.

For sales teams, it’s great. We found that discussions between vendors, account executives, and customers predict success. In this type of scenario, where you have sales people working through a deal with multiple people, organizations, and even companies, you want to see some creativity and measurable, innovative ideas. In a hospital, on the other hand, where you have a lot of people working together to help patients in very prescribed ways, you don’t want a lot of creativity. You want the opposite. It’s the same five variables, but there you want reliability and performance. So the oscillation pattern turns on its head. So you have to calibrate the variables again.

Dave: You could also look at executive performance. If you have an executive team that’s not functioning that well, you do an ONA on just those individuals to understand things like, who’s talking to who, how much, who’s spending a lot of time managing up, who’s spending a lot of time managing down, where are the strong relationships, are marketing and sales collaborating a lot or are they not talking at all. That’s a warning sign. They should be talking to each other. So you can imagine how you could use this as a tool to understand and improve an executive team at the team performance and individual level.

Stori: There are also mergers and acquisitions. Companies are often looking to grow their business through acquisitions, and they need to be able to streamline that process and how quickly people are getting integrated. ONA can help you make sure you have critical people onboard and you don’t have talent attrition.

If you’re a year into an acquisition and the heads of the acquisition’s marketing and sales and manufacturing teams aren’t talking to the acquiring company’s teams, you don’t have an acquisition, you have a conglomerate. You still have an independent business unit. You’re not getting the benefit from the acquisition.


We feel truly privileged to be working with Peter to develop Cisco ONA, our cutting-edge collaboration optimization and change management service that is sure to change the way companies do business. Our vision is that ONA will allow organizations not only to build more creative, efficient, and productive teams but also to identify opportunities for collaborative selling, to capitalize on corporate mergers and acquisitions, and to encourage product innovation.

Please visit the Collaboration Services page to learn more about Cisco Collaboration Services. Also, please let us know your thoughts — we look forward to having a conversation with you around Cisco ONA.


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