How to identify your company’s secret influencers

Organizational network analysis can spotlight MVPs

internal influencers
  • A tiny proportion of influential workers generate nearly a third of interactions that create the most business value
  • Organizational network analysis tools can identify top influencers and suggest ways to maximize their potential
  • Influencers are especially adept at leading cultural change in the workplace.

Your company’s org chart tells only half the story.

While org charts show basic hierarchy, they don’t show that the executives atop the chain of command aren’t necessarily the most influential people inside a company.

That’s because daily interactions among workers—not job titles or decision-making authority—are the key determinants of real influence, according to organizational design experts. Who shares knowledge within (and between) teams? Who greases the wheels of productivity? Whose attitudes impact morale across the enterprise? Answers to those questions can reveal a group of unsung VIPs who influence the business in subtle but important ways.

“Hidden influencers” comprise just 3% to 5% of the workforce, according to a University of Virginia study, yet they account for 20% to 35% of the collaborations linked to increased sales, productivity gains, product innovations, and other forms of business value. But if you ask business leaders to identify which employees are most influential in their companies, they’re right just half of the time, according to the study.

[Learn why employee experience platforms are the future of work.]

To close the gap, companies are turning to organizational network analysis (ONA) tools that can generate maps of a company’s informal networks and identify its most influential players. Several startups, including TrustSphere, Humanyze, and Polinode, offer software that measures worker “social capital” and generates actionable insights from it. Nearly half of all large enterprise organizations today are currently experimenting with ONA, according to Deloitte research.

The science doesn’t just identify who’s communicating and collaborating with whom, but who’s boosting the productivity of others.

By identifying under-the-radar influencers, companies can tap them for leadership roles, enlist them to promote new initiatives, and give them prime office real estate in proximity to the teams who need them.

The biggest payoff is more obvious: If you know who your secret MVPs are, you can take critical steps to keep them on the team.

The science of influence analysis

The concept of network analysis dates back to the 1950s, when sociologists first used it to study how informal communities function. In the early 2000s, companies began using ONA methodology to improve organizational design. Its scale was limited, however, because ONA analysts only had access to survey data.

Today, companies have a wealth of analytic tools to help them understand internal influence networks. They can pull data from email, instant messaging, and collaboration apps; from project management platforms, work calendars, and social media. Even employee badges can be part of the mix: Humanyze uses “smart ID badges” for a view into how people move about the office each day and whom they interact with the most.

These data streams would be useless without the processing power to mine them on a large scale, says Rob Cross, professor of global leadership at Babson College and a co-author of the UVA study. The science doesn’t just identify who’s communicating and collaborating with whom. It also pinpoints workers who boost the productivity of others.

One multinational company hired Humanyze to analyze productivity gaps among engineers. Data showed that a small group of influencers played a big role in getting projects across the finish line. Team members who collaborated with influencers were 60% more productive than those who did not. That efficiency boost helped drive down project completion times for the entire team.

Armed with those insights, the company restructured teams and scheduled more time for knowledge sharing between influencers and junior employees. The influencer analysis ultimately generated $22 million in increased revenue, according to Humanyze.

“People who are influential might look unremarkable from an organizational perspective,” says Ben Waber, co-founder and CEO of Humanyze. “You might even look at their performance and say, ‘They’re not performing.’ But if this person is spending six hours of their day making 20 co-workers 10% more effective, they’re performing.”

Andrew Pitts, CEO of Polinode, agrees that influence is not about who has the most connections. It’s about who has the right connections, especially across business siloes.

“Some influencers are a bridge between groups,” Pitts explains. “They can be very important in connecting people who otherwise wouldn’t be connected.”

Change agents

Another benefit of identifying influence is the ability to pinpoint workers who are adept at promoting cultural change. Top executives and managers often have limited ability to promote grassroots change.

“Before, when we’d get the leaders on board, we were able to change about 10% of a company’s behavior,” says Tiffany McDowell, principal of human capital at Deloitte. “Now, knowing the influencers, we’re able to change 80% or 90% of the company’s behavior.”

Influencers can help drive cultural change for a variety of objectives, from promoting HR policies and digital transformation initiatives to major restructuring and merger integrations.

There’s a cautionary flip-side scenario, however: Positive influencers can become negative ones if they’re unhappy on the job.

Deloitte recently identified 120 managers who influenced a 3,000-person IT division of a large tech company. Its analytics revealed that influencers’ engagement scores were 30% lower than those of their colleagues. They didn’t feel like the company took care of them, that their ideas were heard, or that they had a say in the direction of the business.

“That’s a major risk, because all of your business value is tied to those folks,” McDowell says. “But they’re walking the halls every day proliferating a ‘woe is me’ mentality.” The company immediately took steps to make these key players happier and more engaged, by redesigning roles and offering incentives.

Influencer burnout

Because of their reputation as connectors and knowledge-sharers, influencers are vulnerable to another hidden danger: burnout.

“These people are helping connect people in different parts of the organization. If you’re giving them too much to do, that can lead to very bad outcomes,” says Humanyze’s Waber.

Cross’ research team at Babson College recently analyzed how executives worked in the production division of a major petroleum firm. They found that one influential manager played a critical role in information flow within the division. He was also the main point of contact between divisions. Not surprisingly, he was continually stressed by the demands of the job.

To mitigate the burnout risk, the company shifted ownership of some tasks to other leaders. That gave the manager relief and also boosted the division’s productivity.

Companies can also use ONA tools to capture critical knowledge before it leaves the building. TrustSphere, for example, analyzes employee data to produce a “transition report” for exiting employees. The reports lists their 50 strongest relationships within the company. This list gets shared with the departed employee’s replacement during onboarding.

Cross cautions that, just as companies shouldn’t overvalue (and overburden) influencers, they shouldn’t undervalue everyone else.

“There’s a knee-jerk reaction that being on the fringe of the network is bad,” says Cross. “There are many reasons why a high-end scientist, for example, is engaged in solitary work that adds value to the enterprise.”

Peripheral players, in fact, may represent just as much untapped value as influencers. As employees rise through the ranks, they often find themselves at a distance from day-to-day operations. By identifying them, companies can pull them into projects where their expertise can add value.

Put another way: Many of your outliers today can develop into power brokers. But companies will never know who they are if they don’t know how to look.