From Org1 to Performica
Wharton’s 2023 People Analytics White Paper Competition:
1st place winner
Up to now, we’ve started and ended with offering analytics. We had a lot of wins, and some important wins, but we haven’t changed the game. Systematically and organizationally, we weren’t equipped to take the next logical step. But we are now.
This case centers on Alex Furman, a technologist and cofounder of the genetics testing company Invitae (current co-founder of Performica). It shows how Furman built Org1—Invitae’s human resources information system—to suit the collaborative, non-hierarchical structure of the company.
The case traces Furman’s use of network graphs to identify who worked with whom and to find ‘quiet influencers’ who might not be readily visible in the organization.
The case asks students whether people analytics technology solutions are best suited to inform leaders or to guide their decisions. While discussing some of the use cases of this approach at Invitae, the case leads to the bigger question of whether a ‘home-grown’ technology system can continue to grow and expand within a single company, or whether it requires more dedicated focus and resources to succeed.
How Alex Furman built Org1—Invitae’s human resources information system
Following the merger with Locus Development in 2012, Invitae, a biotechnology company specialized in advanced genetic testing, faced a challenge of managing the increased workforce and navigating the culture change.
Given its collaborative, horizontal organizational structure, Invitae struggled to find appropriate HR tools and technologies that would satisfy its need in accurate people analytics. Though there were a lot of employee engagement data collectors and multisource data analysis platforms at that time, they failed to fit Invitae’s unique networked workflow. The company needed an encompassing solution; an innovative people analytics tool with strong surveying capabilities, accurate data and comprehensive, unbiased employee feedback that would lead to applicable and easily digestible guidelines for HR managers.
Thus, Alex Furman, one of the co-founders of Invitae, brought Org1 to life under the company’s umbrella. After years in development and testing, it became what we know now as Performica — a tool that has cracked the code to HR guiding analytics, where real-time, accurate data inputs transform into applicable, clear advice for managers and HR professionals that allow for data-driven decision-making in the workplace.
The task at hand
After the merger with the biotech firm Locus Development, Invitae workforce saw rapid growth. The managers not only had to run the company seven times bigger than they used to but also navigate the culture integration. Despite their best attempts at introducing the HR infrastructure to foster the process, most of the tools or technologies at that time heavily leaned toward top-down evaluation or intricately biased employee reviews that did not fit Invitae’s unique networked workflow.
The company was in the urgent need of the right employee data analysis to manage, measure and monitor the performance of the new diverse workforce and carry out strategic decisions as to the company’s culture after the merger. Alex Furman, one of the co-founders of Invitae, who took on the role of the CHRO at that time, decided to tailor the software that would specifically address these needs of the company himself. A solution that would allow for accurate, 360-degree feedback and evidence-based decision-making.
Addressing the challenge
To eliminate institutional bias and top-down evaluation, Furman came up with a comprehensive software, Org1, that comprised of employee communication metadata analysis, a peer ranking system, and several types of employee surveys that fit Invitae’s non-hierarchical, collaborative work environment, providing managers with an up-to-date understanding of team productivity and organizational health.
Beta version development
To match Invitae’s unique collaborative structure, Org1 was designed with core focus on identifying close collaborators and collecting their feedback, as people who work closely together were more inclined to provide accurate, constructive evaluation of their colleagues’ input — not their managers. First, Furman introduced the Org1 peer communication analysis to acquire accurate data on frequent employee communication (e.g. metadata from Slack, email, calendars). Then, using a rating system called Peer Rank Score (PRS), Org1 offered employees to rank their close colleagues on a two-axis matrix, creating pairwise comparisons on skill and teamwork.
Peer Rank Score provides accurate performance insights:
Together, these two parameters — close communication and peer rank — captured the major part of the individual’s performance in an organization.
Receiving first Org1 insights
The Org1 system was put to the test for the first time in 2014. Comparing the employees’ PRS against their base salaries and spot review bonuses (acknowledgements for outstanding performance) immediately highlighted the discrepancy that wouldn’t be seen otherwise.
Org1 PRS scores had no discernible correlation with base salaries, but a high degree of correlation with spot review bonuses. PRS has been proven highly effective in predicting top-performers within Invitae network as employees with highest PRS happened to be the ones nominated for spot review bonuses. As a result, the first Org1 test has also highlighted the company’s core issue — Invitae wasn’t rewarding the top-performers with the highest salaries, and needed to introduce appropriate change.
OrgGraph™ identifies influencers
Org1’s social OrgGraph™ offered an employee communication map, visualizing and highlighting the company’s highly-connected employees — vital nodes of information sharing. As Furman put it, “The first time I saw the OrgGraph™, and saw who was interconnected to whom, I thought there was a bug in the code. But it turned out that the code was fine. There were just a whole bunch of quiet awesome people around the company who handled a lot more than I realized. I didn’t know about them, but Org1 did.” As a result, it allowed Invitae to identify top-performers and incorporate a better, evidence-based approach to rewarding them for their contributions.
Building up the toolset
By 2015 Org1 expanded toward its first external customer — London Gates Education Group that provided invaluable feedback on the product, and by 2022, Org1 became a robust integrated software product that offered a range of analytic tools to managers and employees both at Invitae and London Gates.Org1 gave detailed insights on communications, collaborations, and morale across the workforce of each company, from top executives to the rank-and-file, spanning a range of roles from basic scientific research to product management and delivery.
Continuous employee feedback
While Org1 incorporated traditional manager review functions and offered a customizable range of unique survey and data collection tools, giving managers and HR continuous feedback on the organization. As Invitae’s CTO Eric Fleischman put it, “With traditional HR software, feedback is cadence-oriented. There’s a manager and peer review season that’s quarterly or annual, and people rush to get it done by the deadline.” The surveys provided by Org1 to the Invitae employees were concise yet frequent, allowing for better contextualization and accuracy. HR Business Partner, Sarah Zeller, claimed the product was more than worth it: “It’s really not that laborious; each of the surveys can be done in around ten minutes, and the intelligence we get from it is invaluable.”
Team reviews and surveys
By improving the algorithm for monitoring employee communication, Org1 achieved better and more accurate communication scores for each pair of employees that added up to a comprehensive communications map, including data on frequency, timing and the type of communication (one-on-one or in larger groups). Communication scores were used to assign each employee a group of five coworkers per quarter for “team reviews,” which involved a quantitative review along the PRS metrics of skill and teamwork, and a qualitative review of the employees “key strengths” and “biggest opportunity for growth.”
Amplifying Employee Voices
Employees were also required to complete quarterly team engagement surveys, which were conducted for each of the teams they participated in (employees were often involved in several teams), and information network surveys on the quality of communication with close collaborators (whether coworkers were “enablers” of workflow or “bottlenecks” who impeded it).
Having access to this information, HR managers were able access a dashboard listing the employees with the highest and lowest PRSs at the company, as well as the employees whose PRS was increasing or declining the fastest. Furman noted that Org1’s social graph was particularly effective at eliminating some of the usual biases that tended to show up in 360-degree reviews elsewhere, such as gender stereotypes (e.g., that men were more skilled than women and women better at teamwork than men), highlight top-performers, key team-players and identify employees struggling in their roles.
Identifying employee assistance opportunities
Org1 provided diagrams of every working relationship within the organization using digital trace data to determine which employees are working closely together. It helped Invitae identify the influencers among the employees, highlighting their network of connections that might otherwise go unnoticed. Given the team reviews and their influence on employees’ PRS, Org1 showed “incoming positive influence” and “incoming negative influence” for each employee. This data was useful for flagging collaboration problems between certain pairs of employees or certain teams and taking appropriate measures to help these employees positively influence their trajectory.
While the spot review bonuses (acknowledgements for outstanding performance) continued to be a part of Invitae HR routine, Org1 also offered a “praise and thanks” function, where employees could put coworkers in for specific contributions that could translate, at the discretion of managers, into spot bonuses.
Data-based improvements to employee assistance
Through morale surveys Org1 also collected quarterly reviews of employee morale, where employees were asked to rate their level of agreement with the company’s progress, mission, and recent development, and provided with an opportunity to request follow-up from Invitae’s HR business partners, who would meet with dissatisfied employees and connect them with the managers best positioned to act on the feedback.
Invitae HR Business Partner Sarah Zeller recalled one instance in particular when Org1 helped identify a morale problem among drivers in the company’s commercial operations team. Drivers who worked in rural areas had to drive farther than drivers who were closer to cities, and the third-party mileage reimbursement system Invitae used was not giving them sufficient stipends. Through the morale function on Org1, Zeller was able to collect this feedback, follow up with the commercial operations team, and solve the driver reimbursement problem.
Results with Org1
Given the Org1 toolset, Invitae was able to streamline the continuous employee feedback to address two major factors that impeded their company’s progress after the merger: team integration and cultural cohesion. Org1’s successful Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) using digital trace data helped Invitae to identify their influencers and culture carriers, improve team dynamics, and enable data-driven decision making.
- Identify the key individuals and groups within the organization that have the most influence and impact on decision-making and communication.
- Understand the flow of information within the organization to identify silos, bottlenecks or barriers that may be impacting communication and decision-making.
- Improve team dynamics by providing managers insights on strengths and weaknesses of the team.
- Eliminate patterns of bias in the organization.
- Improve visibility of employee issues otherwise overlooked by management.
- Use evidence-based data when identifying top performers, potential leaders within the organization, and addressing performance and pay processes.
Making a solution, not another dashboard
Given data and feedback from employees both at Invitae and London Gates, Alex Furman focused on developing and adding new tools to Org1 gradually transforming it into what we now know as Performica.
As Furman put it, “HR departments are drowning in dashboards already. What they lack is the time to generate a coherent strategy from what the dashboards are telling them.” Furman decided that if Org1 was to grow, it needed to offer HR and managers not only information, but recommendations on how to use it. In his words “Up to now, we’ve started and ended with offering analytics. We had a lot of wins, and some important wins, but we haven’t changed the game. Systemically and organizationally, we weren’t equipped to take the next logical step. But we are now. To take that next step, we need to move from analytics to guiding analytics. Our product needs to become HR management consulting in a software-as-a service (SaaS) box. “
Furman was convinced that the fundamentals of Org1—particularly its foundation in PRS and the social graph—had the legs to power the next generation of HR systems, especially when addressing the attrition problem. With the improved Org1 software, the social graph and morale tools could help managers predict when an employee was at risk of quitting. In Org1’s future as a guiding analytics company, Furman predicted that the software would be able to determine which employees were at risk of quitting, automatically notify their manager and recommend that they schedule a preventive meeting with the employee, suggest talking points for the meeting, and even suggest a new project that the employee might take on — all approaches documented to reduce attrition.
With Invitae support for spin-off, Furman was worried about how this product would fit into the overcrowded people analytics technology space, yet sure of the clear advantage. Per his words: “No competitors in the space use the social graph or PRS like we do. We have a unique approach that creates uniquely effective results.”