Could Workplace Nudges Help Fix ONA's Biggest Problem?

It’s clear from the growing number of events, articles and multitude of new vendors in the space that organizational network analysis (ONA) is gaining real momentum. Josh Bersin recently called out ONA as one of the top disruptions in HR for 2020. It’s not hard to see why there is so much excitement. HR leaders we speak with are drawn by the prospect of finally understanding employee behaviors and how they impact business outcomes. ONA is a fascinating and powerful technology.

Despite all of this excitement, I fear that we’re in for a reckoning. ONA (and much of the people analytics space) has a HUGE actionability problem. Namely, how do organizations get from interesting insights and pretty graphs to real change and actions? Far too many ONA projects still die off without ever leaving the analytics or HR team and never having a real impact on the business. If this challenge is not rapidly addressed ONA is likely heading for the dreaded trough of disillusionment

CUE Workplace Nudges

Luckily an exciting new parallel development may hold the answer to the actionability challenge. Workplace nudges have also been attracting a lot of interest in the past couple of years. They are the idea of automatically sending small, well-timed notifications to specific employees, managers or other leaders to suggest behavioral changes. Nudges are typically designed with one goal in mind: driving positive action and change! Given this, they seem well placed to help solve one of ONA’s biggest challenges. 

How do Nudges Help

So what does this look like in practice? ONA is well suited to modeling workplace behaviors. By applying predictive analytics one can start to uncover whether certain behaviors lead to better or worse outcomes. For instance, in a recent interview, RJ Milner (the ex head of people analytics at McKesson), outlined how they had used ONA to identify the an interesting relationship between team networks and turnover risk: Higher turnover teams tended to have stronger relationships both up the hierarchy and outside the organization, while having weaker relationships with direct peers and down the hierarchy. 

Teams with weak internal relationships have more turnover. That’s a great insight. If you could do something about this you could really impact turnover. But what does the HR team in an organization with twenty thousand plus employees do with this information? It’s not an easy problem to solve at scale. Workplace nudges may well be the answer. 

Imagine for instance that when this condition is detected in a team a well timed nudge could be sent. The nudge could be designed to encourage the manager to run a team building event, prompt check-in meetings with at-risk individuals or encourage joint goals requiring collaboration. What’s more, real-time ONA data could be used to measure the impact of the nudge to determine which interventions work best. In other words, did the team really form more internal relationships after the nudge was sent?

Example of a nudge sent to encourage team collaboration

Organizational Network Analysis Makes for Better Nudges

What’s interesting is that not only can ONA benefit from nudges but nudges are potentially also made far better through the use of network data. Effective nudges require great context. If you’re going to suggest a behavioral change you have to have a really good understanding of the current situation on a team or for an individual. Nudges sent with poor context are usually ineffective and can even be damaging.

What’s more is context constantly changes in organizations so the relevance of data on context decays rapidly over time. Network analytics built on real-time IT data are great at providing a consistent view of what's happening on a team. As a result, nudges based on ONA data are often far more context specific and better at driving real behavioral change.


ONA is an exciting new tool with enormous potential to transform organizations. We as an industry need to continue to focus on projects that deliver real business value. That means ensuring that we get from insight to concrete action. If we don’t address this actionability challenge it’s likely that the ONA will lose a lot of its hard earned momentum. Nudges are a welcome new area of development and will certainly help to close the gap.

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