Some of your employees are more critical to your company than others. If you keep your most important employees happy, your business is far more likely to do well. Perhaps even more importantly, if you don't know who those employees are and what they need to stay happy, they might leave your company -- and that will almost certainly will hurt its prospects for the future.

This raises several questions: What makes an employee critical to your business? How do such employees make your business run better? How do you find them? And how do you keep them happy so they stay at your company and prosper?

If you think that the answer is based on performance evaluations by managers-- which are often subjective and based on insufficient data-- you would be in good company, but you'd also be wrong.

How so? Thanks to new methods for mapping out workers' informal networks, organizations are increasingly finding their most valuable employees by tracking online sources such as emails, to pinpoint the employees who others in your company go to for fast, objective, insightful help with their pressing business problems, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Health services provider, Cigna which merged with Express Scripts in December 2018, used this organizational network to find what it calls its "hidden gems." As the Journal wrote, "These employees had broad connections outside of their work groups, could encourage collaboration and were frequently cited by others as inspirational or energizing. The company combined the networking data with other sources and found that such people typically had higher performance and higher career potential."

Cigna decided that one way to motivate and get more value from their hidden gems was to raise their visibility within the organization. For example, executives chose one such manager to appear at a leadership meeting held soon after Cigna's merger with Express Scripts.

Here are three steps you should take to find and keep your company's hidden gems.

1. Assemble a team to find your hidden gems.

The first step is to ask your human resources leader to appoint a team to find your hidden gems. The team should be given a specific time frame to identify those employees with the largest, most active informal networks within your company -- and potentially with customers and partners.

The team should be managed by a manager who excels at analyzing data, directing the efforts of a diverse team, and communicating effectively with senior executives. And it might be worthwhile to consider hiring an expert in performing organizational network analysis.

2. Conduct an organizational network analysis.

An organizational network analysis can use many different sources of work-related data to identify a company's hidden gems. The data can be gathered by analyzing traffic among employees through email, Slack, or other internal means of communication. By pinpointing who gets and responds quickly to messages from the most people, companies can identify their hidden gems.

Of course, analyzing such internal communications can make people in the company nervous. After all, many employees -- while they may have signed an employment agreement that gives the company open access to all their use of company IT resources -- hope that their emails will only be seen by the people who were intended to read them. 

Cigna's approach was different. By using a survey of employees, it was able to bypass this problem. In the summer of 2018 it sent a survey to 24,000 employees. The survey asked them to describe the people with whom they worked, who they relied on, who they needed more access to complete their tasks and who inspired and energized them.

3. Identify your company's hidden gems help them develop their careers

Based on analyzing these results, you should make a list of the employees with the strongest networks and work with them to develop their careers. Each hidden gem may have unique career goals and therefore you should match what your company gives each one to what each hopes to accomplish.

For example, some of them might want to take on more responsibility -- though if they were hidden before, perhaps they were happy not being recognized by top management. But if they do want to rise up in the organization, ask them where they'd like to go and assess how to bolster their skills and experience to ease their path.

Others might be very happy continuing what they are doing already -- but they want the company to take away impediments to doing their jobs. They might relish being contacted by so many people for help, but lack sufficient staff to respond quickly and effectively to those requests. 

Given how important these hidden gems are to your company's future, you should get going on this fast.