Commerce Professor Reveals Hidden Workplace Networks

March 14, 2008 — Rob Cross, associate professor in the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce, doesn’t put much stock in formal organizational charts. His research has proven them largely irrelevant in understanding how businesses actually operate on a day-to-day basis.

Companies work with Cross, an expert in social network analysis, to determine the intricate but largely invisible connections that people form in order to get their work done. In order to illustrate and understand these relationships, Cross interviews and surveys employees about topics such as who they rely on for information and who helps them to accomplish tasks. "It's like taking an X-ray to see who's important in an organization," he said. "A lot of the times, it's not who leaders think it is."

Rather than a hierarchy, the results of Cross' mapping more closely resemble a web, graphically demonstrating countless interconnections. The diagrams Cross constructs help him to understand who is central to getting things done as well as to visualize bottlenecks or disconnects in the network — providing information that is critical for businesses to improve. For instance, at the edges of these maps, Cross often finds people with important expertise who are underutilized by their organization. Finding ways to connect these outliers and their resources back to the organization can dramatically improve business performance.

In his analysis, Cross also looks closely at the notion of enthusiasm or what he terms "energy" and its role in an organization. He has found that people who have the ability to create enthusiasm around them establish more connections and ultimately perform better than others. Cross can pinpoint areas of a company with high and low levels of energy and give managers suggestions for fostering energy, and thus new ideas. "Energy is hugely predictive of where innovation starts to occur deep within an organization," Cross said.

Cross published "The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations" in 2004. This book incorporated his research into a practical tool for executives. He has plans to release another book in 2009 that features more business ideas and diagnostics and is geared towards not only executives but also business students. Cross is partnering with the Batten Institute at U.Va.'s Darden School of Business to develop stories about company experiences using social network analysis into multimedia case examples to accompany the book.

Cross founded and directs the Network Roundtable, a consortium of 80 member organizations who work with McIntire faculty to apply network techniques to critical business issues. The Roundtable tests new business ideas and measures their impact. Findings are available to members, as is faculty expertise. "The intent of the Roundtable is to be a conversation between McIntire and the broader commercial world," Cross said. "The real focus for me is how we, as a business school, can show impact."

— By Melissa Maki