Research Highlights

Below are featured research projects and publications by Connected Commons members that illustrate the practical and powerful application of social network science to improve individual and organizational success. Additional and emerging research is available to members in the Resource Center.


The Invisible Network Strategies of Successful People: Counterintuitive Ways to Innovate, Execute and Thrive at Work

Rob Cross
Babson College

Personal networks have become critical to performance and well-being as the collaborative intensity of work has exploded and the pace of change accelerated over the past decade. Yet contrary to popular belief, an effective network is not usually a big one.

More than 20 years of mapping networks and individual performance in over 300 organizations has yielded some surprising truths regarding the network strategies of high performers.

Our most recent research focused on understanding the behaviors of successful people—those in their organizations’ high performance category and scoring higher on measures of career satisfaction, well-being and engagement. How do these people build, maintain and leverage personal networks in ways that help them produce innovative solutions, execute work effectively and thrive in their careers?

Based on interviews conducted with 160 leaders (80 men and 80 women) across 20 organizations, we identified twelve network lessons that invisibly differentiate these people.

Research Highlights

Connect and Adapt: How Network Development and Transformation Improve Retention and Engagement in Employees’ First Five Years

Rob Cross
Babson College

Greg Pryor

Tina Opie
Babson College

Keith Rollag
Babson College

A robust economy and increased job mobility make it increasingly difficult to keep top talent from leaving. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that almost 25 percent of people in the U.S. workforce voluntarily quit their jobs in 2015, and an additional 37 percent were considering leaving. More people, especially recent graduates, are job-hopping with higher frequency. As a result, many managers are facing serious retention issues especially in technical, scientific and engineering sectors.

Organizational network analysis enables leaders to be more precise about the kinds of relationships that matter for performance and well-being, whether for managing entry, transitions – particularly in the two-five year band – or for the long term. Taking a more strategic, transformational approach to network development has major implications for how organizations on-board, connect and integrate employees for long-term productivity and retention. Networks matter for retention in predictable ways that leaders can influence.

Research Highlights

Groundswell: Tapping the Power of Employee Networks to Fuel Emergent Innovation

Michael Arena
General Motors

Jonathan Sims
Babson College

Rob Cross
Babson College

Mary Uhl-Bien
Texas Christian

Research shows that growth fueled through organic innovation is more profitable than growth driven by acquisition. Unfortunately, many innovation programs fail to deliver anticipated results, in part because they separate the innovation process from the informal networks needed to adapt and support an innovation.

How do leaders best connect employees in ways that more systematically unleash emergent innovation?

This is the question we set out to explore in a decade-long two phase research program.

In phase 1 we conducted over 400 interviews and employed organizational network analysis (ONA) to analyze the network dynamics surrounding innovation. In phase 2 we interviewed 160 high performing leaders across 20 well-known organizations to capture rich stories of how leaders had successfully introduced an innovation.

In this article we address this topic by exploring employee networks and the social nature of innovation, how to identify and manage the three network roles critical for emergent innovation, and how individuals can drive emergent innovation in adaptive space.

Research Highlights

Reclaiming Your Day: How Successful People Manage Collaborative Overload

Rob Cross
Babson College

Deb Zehner
Connected Commons

Scott Taylor
Babson College

The collaborative intensity of work has exploded over the past decade due to transition to matrix-based organization structures, increased complexity of products and services, globalization, email proliferation, adoption of collaborative tools, growing importance of social media, and so on. To be sure, there are benefits to greater collaboration— but the drawback has been that people’s workloads have become overwhelming. Collaborative time demands have risen by more than 50% over the past decade, and most knowledge workers or leaders now spend 85% or more of their work time on email, in meetings and on the phone.

To help address this critical issue, we conducted both quantitative and qualitative research over the past several years. First, we worked with 20 global organizations to model the collaborative time demands that employees face. We employed social network analysis to quantify the costs of those interactions and their effect on productivity, engagement scores, performance and voluntary attrition. Second, to help find a solution, we conducted 200 interviews with this set of organizations. What we found was surprising.

The good news is that there are steps everyone can take to greatly alleviate collaborative overload. And they don’t require heroic actions; typically doing just four or five things differently can enable people to claw back 18 to 24 percent of their collaborative time.


Organizational Agility: How Targeted Network Investments Promote Organizational Responsiveness

Rob Cross
Babson College

Chris Fussel
McChrystal Group

Alia Crocker
Babson College

Peter Gray
University of Virginia

Successful organizations must become increasingly agile as the pace of change in the business environment accelerates. Leaders often seek to promote agility through matrix-based designs or through the de-layering of formal structures; unfortunately, these efforts are disruptive and often backfire with unintended consequences.

As an alternative approach, organizational network analysis can help leaders make more targeted investments to enhance organizational agility. Based on interviews conducted with 160 leaders in 20 organizations and quantitative assessments of networks in 32 organizations, we show how cognitive, affective and behavioral dimensions of employee networks can be developed through such investments to improve organizational agility.

Research Highlights

Building Networks for Growth and Agility

Part I: Strategically Targeting Network Development

Jean Singer
Collaborative Analytics

Laura Mendelow

A high growth leader in healthcare innovation needed to more efficiently service a rapidly expanding client base and better share specialized expertise to quickly solve problems and develop innovative new products. Recognizing the role of networks in these collaborative activities, they turned to organizational network analysis (ONA) to identify strategic targets for network development.

The ONA revealed three main priorities: (1) reducing collaborative overload, particularly among top

connectors, (2) making expertise more readily available through the network, and (3) creating agility by better connecting across high-impact organizational boundaries.

To drive change, the company first engaged executives with network reports specific to each one’s unit. They then chose targets with direct business relevance and a high level of energy for change at the executive level. Identified groups would participate in a series of Business Partner Collaboration meetings to produce structural changes in working relationships and individual network development plans.


Collaborative Overload: Your Most Helpful Employees Are Burning Out, Here’s What To Do About It

This article appeared on the cover of the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Rob Cross
Babson College

Adam Grant
University of

Reb Rebele
University of

Collaboration is taking over the workplace. As business becomes increasingly global and cross-functional, silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success.

According to data we have collected over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.

Performance suffers as they are buried under an avalanche of requests for input or advice, access to resources, or attendance at a meeting. They take assignments home, and soon, according to a large body of evidence on stress, burnout and turnover become real risks.

What’s more, research we’ve done across more than 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation.

Connected Commons Thought Leadership in the Media

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