The Predictive Benefits of Analyzing Employees’ Communications Networks

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

In the wake of the destruction left by the Enron scandal and subsequent bankruptcy in the early 2000s, one of the more revelatory and instructive artifacts left behind was the massive trove of approximately 1,600,000 of the company’s corporate emails. Researchers from a variety of fields have performed all manner of extensive analyses on this “corpus” of emails as it known. Of particular interest was the structure and operations of this failed company’s communications network. That is, simply stated, extracting and examining who’s who and what’s what in this failed organization.

No other database of this type, size and depth had ever been previously available for such purposes. What the researchers have learned from this and its subsequent and significant influences in many public and private sectors was the subject of a fascinating article in MIT Technology Review posted on July 2, 2013 entitled The Immortal Life of the Enron E-mails by Jessica Lander. I highly recommend reading this.

[July 18, 2017 Update:  For a new deep and wide analysis of the Enron email database, see What the Enron E-Mails Say About Us, by Nathan Heller, in the 7/24/17 edition of The New Yorker.]

I immediately recalled this piece recently while reading a column posted on the Harvard Business Review blog on February 10, 2016 entitled What Work Email Can Reveal About Performance and Potential by Chantrelle Nielsen. This analytical processes and consulting projects it describes could be of highly practical value to all manners and sizes of organizations. I also suggest reading this in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate and pose some emoji-free questions of my own.

I believe this post will also provide a logical follow-on to the February 15, 2016 Subway Fold post entitled Establishing a Persuasive Digital Footprint for Competing in Today’s Job Market. That post covered the importance a job candidate’s digital presence before being hired while this post covers the predictive potential of an employee’s digital presence after they have become an employee and integrated themselves into an organization.

Data Generation

The author begins by focusing her attention upon the modern tools and platforms used in the workplace for people to communicate and collaborate such as Skype and Slack. More traditionally, there is email. While these modes are important, they can also be a “mixed blessing”. Careful management of these technologies can assist is determining which forms of “digital communications are productive” for both employers and their employees.

Most importantly, these systems produce huge volumes of data. As a result, some firms are developing “next generation products” containing analytical capabilities to deeply dive into these databases and the networks they support.¹,²

The author mentions that her former company, VoloMetrix, is engaged in this field and has been acquired by Microsoft. The examples and her article concern work done for the firm’s clients before it become part of MS. During this time, VoloMetrix worked for years “with executives in large enterprises” to enable them to discern patterns within employees’ digital communications.

Predicting Employee Performance

A “strong network” can be a predictive factor of an employee’s performance. For example, a software company looked at a year’s worth of anonymized employee email data across all job categories. The findings showed that:

  • The best performers were characterized by 36% larger in-house networks, when compared to average performers, where they connected “at least biweekly in small group messages”. (This criterion was used to determine “strong ties”).
  • The lower performers exhibited “6% smaller networks” when compared to average performers.

On an annual basis, the “size and strength” of employees’ networks proved to a better predictor of their performances than managers’ more traditional assessments. Thus, being “intensely engaged” in collaborating with their peers was a driver of their work performance.

This effect was likewise seen at other business-to-business sales concerns. For instance, at a software company the top 10 workers in sales were, on average, connected to 10 or more of their colleagues. Their internal networks proved to be 25% larger than the networks of low performers. When social graph data (used to visualize the structures of networks), was examined it frequently indicated that connections within a company were even more important than those outside of it.

Predicting Employee Potential

Some businesses use “engagement programs” to assist the careers of employees are seen as having high potential to become future leaders. For example, a utility company studied the networks of a few hundreds of these people. They discovered that:

  • Those people who “were often the most connected” were shown to have networks “52% larger than average”.
  • Nonetheless, there were still others within this same group having networks of “below average” dimensions.

Managers surveyed reported that the less connected workers also had “great skills or ideas”, but displayed “potentially less” extroversion³ or emotional intelligence 4 needed to become influential. Still, opportunities are available to assist these people to “gain a broader audience” with better connected “agents” who, in turn, can promote their ideas.

Furthermore, growing a large network only for its own sake is not always the optimal approach. Rather, some networks are “more effective” because of who they include. That is, if they include people who have higher degrees of influence.

Another client, a hardware company, advanced their analysis to examine the “composition and quality” of the networks assembled by their sales reps. Their findings indicated that:

  • The “involvement of certain sales roles” corresponded to a 10X increase in the size of deals with customers.
  • Some sales roles were characterized as “middlemen” and, as such, did not “clearly demonstrate” anyone’s personal leadership potential.

Synthesizing Two Approaches

As described above, two analytical approaches have emerged for examining and leveraging the insights gained from communications networks. Both can work well in conjunction with the other. First is awareness whereby business leaders:

  • Communicate the importance of building networks
  • Provide the network analytical tools
  • Maintain the “faith” that their employees will understand this message and act upon it

The second is the prediction of outcomes, most often by sales organization to determine “which deals will close”. While this currently is applied less often than the awareness approach, this situation is now changing.

The insights gained from studying communications networks which are then applied to help build better working relationships and performance, must be “used thoughtfully” while balancing human and technological factors. Moreover, for these to work properly and “make connections more meaningful and efficient”, effectively gathering sufficient data on how employees do their jobs and communicate with their peers is essential.

My Questions

  • What standards should be established to assess communication and collaboration networks? Should they be the same for all businesses and job types or varied from field to field? Should they be differentiated further from employer to employer within a field and then perhaps for every department and job title within the same firm? (For some excellent new reading on how professional networks compare in their breadth and effectiveness in different professions, I highly recommend reading another new article on The Harvard Business Review blog posted on February 19, 2016 entitled How Having an MBA vs. a Law Degree Shapes Your Network by Adina Sterling.)
  • How should “influential” members of a network be defined in a business environment? Is influencer marketing, where individuals with a significant online presence appear to have more influence upon others in their social networks and are thus given special attention by marketers, the correct model to consider?  If so, should businesses consider developing and applying the equivalent of a Klout score to their employees? (This is an online service that rates one’s relative influence across much of social media.)
  • Would it be helpful to a company’s workforce to make this data and analytics readily available to everyone on their internal network and, if so, what would be the benefits and/or drawbacks of doing so? Would access to one’s network’s shape and reach result in some unintended consequences such as pressuring workers to increase the size of their internal and external contacts?
  • Should rewards systems be piloted to see whether they can positively incentivize employees to nurture their networks? For example, for X amount of new contacts added that support a company’s goals, Y additional days off might be awarded.
  • Can network analytics be used to fairly or unfairly restrict workers with non-competition and non-disclosure clauses when they change jobs?

 


1.   Many of these 26 Subway Fold posts under the Category of Social Media also involve metrics and analytical systems for interpreting the voluminous data generated by a wide range of social media services.

2.  A thriving market exists today in enterprise search products that can index, search and unlock the valuable knowledge embedded deep within corporate email and other data platforms. Here is a list of vendors on Wikipedia.

3.  For a completely different and highly engaging analysis of the virtues of being an introvert in social and business environments, I highly recommend reading a recent bestseller entitled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Broadway Books, 2013), by Susan Cain.

4.  The authoritative and highly regarded work on this subject is Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (Bantam Books, 2005), by Daniel Goleman.

Establishing a Persuasive Digital Footprint for Competing in Today’s Job Market

"Footprints in the Sand", Image by Susanne Nilsson

“Footprints in the Sand”, Image by Susanne Nilsson

When you go to visit someone for either personal or business reasons, your host will, depending on the weather, politely ask and try to make sure that you do not track anything in from the outside. Yet in the case of a job search, this is exactly want you want to do but in the entirely virtual sense by focusing the attention of prospective employers upon your tracks across the web. Hence, your online digital footprint informs them that you fully understand how to create meaningful content and a genuine presence, and your facility with web technology.

I first became aware of this over twenty years ago. A friend told me a story about something that he did quite spontaneously during a job interview. This incident and its outcome were strikingly clever back then and its lesson still rings true today.

He had gone for an interview at an Internet startup. Despite his impeccable credentials and accomplishments, he sensed that he was getting nowhere with the interviewer. At the end of their discussion, he thought he had nothing to lose and offered to show the interviewer his own “fan web page” for The Rolling Stones. The interviewer was stunned that he even knew how to create a web page, something that unheard of at that time by anyone interviewing for this type of position. The interviewer immediately called in some of his colleagues to see this.

To borrow a line from Mick and Keith, you can’t always get what you want, but … my friend was offered the job on the spot. He had creatively and completely distinguished himself from all of the other highly qualified candidates by demonstrating that he understood and could apply the latest technology at the core of the company’s business. This was the first instance I was ever aware of where someone had successfully created and introduced his own unique online digital footprint into a job search. What was a novelty way back then has become nearly a necessity in many fields in today’s highly competitive job market.

We first visited this topic in the March 5, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Does Being on Law Review or Effective Blogging and Networking Provide Law Students with Better Employment Prospects?.

The latest report on this trend was an insightful and instructive post in the February 2, 2016 edition of Knowledge@Wharton entitled Job Hunting? Why You Need a Strong Online Footprint (no author is credited). I highly recommend reading this in its entirety. I will summarize, annotate, and posed some of my own questions on making job seekers more of a, well, shoe-in during their searches.

Digital Footprints and Reputations in Relevant Online Communities

The conventional wisdom for today’s typical job searcher is to have a well-crafted resume and cover letter, and to have nothing questionable appear when a prospective employer Googles you. This has evolved further to the point where “establishing a strong and compelling online presence” is often required to land a first interview.  Employers are looking for candidates who have developed a respectable online presence, particularly in their relevant “professional community”.

As discussed by some of the leading experts interviewed for this report:

  • Monica McGrath, formerly the Vice Dean of Education at Wharton, is currently at work on “renewing her consulting” business. She has been surprised along the way by the number of inquiries by potential clients concerning whether she has “built a presence on blogs”. Specifically, they have been interested in determining whether, beyond merely a LinkedIn profile, whether she has developed a unique and professional “voice” as an expert.
  • Samantha Wallace, a recruiter at Korn Ferry Futurestep, believes that if a candidate’s digital footprint is not evident in an online network of importance to a client, the candidate might be removed from consideration. Such exclusion might occur when it significantly matters that a candidate has established a digital presence relevant to the job opportunity.
  • Peter Capelli, the Director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources, find this a “remarkable shift” from prior times when executives were told to avoid the distractions of activities away from their jobs. While the same employer might still discourage this, they are nonetheless now expecting it in new candidates.

Supporting Data and Privacy Concerns

Conversely, ignoring or neglecting your online footprint could now be considered “taking a career risk”. According to a 2015 CareerBuilder-Harris Social Media Recruitment Survey of 2,000 US hiring managers:

  • More than one-third of prospective employers are disinclined to grant an interview for a candidate for whom no online data can be found.
  • Greater than 50% use social media to research candidates.
  • 56% checked for a relevant digital footprint.
  • 37% researched “what others were” posting about job seekers.
  • One-third of hiring managers found information online that resulted in extending a job offer.

Furthermore, some candidates are being asked for their user credentials for their social media accounts because employers believe this can lead them to “a deeper layer of comments” and other data. Privacy advocates are understandably concerned about this. As of 2015, nine states have passed legislation preventing such requests in order to “get or keep a job”.

This fundamental change in the recruiting process has forces employees and their prospective hires alike to examine their roles. Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard believes that issues of privacy concern “society in general”, not limited only to employers requesting access to someone’s Facebook account. Rather, companies like Google are aware of “almost everything about you”, and the breadth of anyone’s digital trail online is tremendous. She thinks that the “people analytics movement” attempts to gather and intuit the vast stores of information about individuals, thus presenting a privacy issue here that has yet to be addressed in the job market.

Tending to Your Own Digital Footprint

The popular news site Buzzfeed recently posted an opening for a Social Media Strategist. The online application asked for candidates’ resume and links to social media accounts or their blogs. (Click on the preceding link and this can be seen under “To Apply”.) Thus, all of the applicants’ digital footprints are essential to the job because, in turn “developing a digital footprint is the job”.

But should the same be true for other positions and businesses?

According to Jon Bische, the CEO of the recruiting platform firm  Entelo, there is some room here depending on the circumstances and nature of the job, but in many fields it is “reasonable to expect some digital presence”. For example, in searching for an engineer or designer, there are now professional networks that have become a “community of record” for a field, and other sites where their professional coding and designs can be assessed. He believes that doing so “gets close to someone’s abilities”.

We are likely still in the early stages of determining how to distinguish oneself online as an expert in their field. Ms. Wallace thinks defining this is still “ambiguous” since it is the individual himself or herself who is creating their own digital footprint and thus they will intentionally “find the connections to promote themselves” as experts.

Mr. Bischke offered the following suggestions for creating a viable digital footprint and control your personal brand including:

  • Google yourself to make certain the top links “are professional and up to date”. Take steps to make any corrections to insure their accuracy.
  • Establish profiles on sites and among networks within your field.
  • Make sure that your information is “presented consistently” across these online venues.

“Generational factors” also influence the nature and breadth of someone’s digital footprint. This is particularly so for Millennials, the global demographic group including people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. They are growing significantly in the population and work force, and will have digital footprints that present “a different sense of self than their elders”.

My Questions

  • Depending upon the particular profession, how will employers now and in the future, assign relative weighting in evaluating:
    • Candidate A who went to a top-level university and distinguished himself academically but who only has a small online footprint in comparison to
    • Candidate B who attended a more mid-level university but she has strategically built a very robust online presence and respectable reputation across peer sites and forums?
    • What are the possible offsets and equivalents between these two types of hypothetical applicants?
  • Might consideration of these factors also potentially create some unanticipated form(s) of employment discrimination?
  • What else can be done to enhance the persuasiveness and pervasiveness of a candidate’s digital footprint? What about these strategies:
    • Producing a web metrics summary about the numbers of visitors and volumes of hits on specific content?
    • Applying principles of content strategy and SEO ranking to boost traffic numbers?
    • Engaging a professional to do implement these strategies or might that be gaming the system a too much?
  • Will situations arise where employers who are impressed by someone’s digital footprint still try to recruit this person even though he or she is not currently looking for another job? (There was a very similar story in an August 24, 2015 post on TheHustle.com entitled Google Has a Secret Interview Process… And It Landed Me a Job, by Max Rosett, where the company recruited the author based on the subjects and contexts of his searches.)

Book Review of “The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory”

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

It is my completely unscientific theory that the music which often matters most to people is the music they listened to when they were young. From Stravinsky to Springsteen to Taylor Swift, the tunes of your youth will likely stay with you for life. These recordings will always get your attention whenever you hear them and perpetually occupy a special place in your heart from their opening bars to their final fades.

Is there really anyone of any age having any music preference who doesn’t get the chills or at very least tap a toe every time they hear the majesty of the Rite of Spring, the propulsive launch of Born to Run, or the megawatt energy of Shake It Off?

Today’s Music Biz and How It Got That Way

The music, artists, producers and companies who are the subjects in The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), by John Seabrook, are not those that I happened to grow up with. Nonetheless, for interested readers who either did or did not come of age at some point during the past two decades, this highly engaging account of the extraordinary changes throughout the music industry will provide readers with a compelling narrative, cultural history, and business case study. This book further excels as an insightful guide through the music industry’s production processes of writing, recording, marketing, distributing and performing today’s chart-topping tunes.

Like a well-arranged progression of chords, each successive chapter skillfully takes you deeper into the operations of the leaders and innovators of the music industry. It is not so much about the music celebrities’ personal lives as it is about the trajectories of their careers, particularly importance of steadily creating viable hits. Moreover, it carefully examines how smash recordings are well-crafted by everyone involved in their creation to make certain they succeed with global music audiences.

Seabrook illuminates exactly how many of today’s hits, as well as misses, have enough deliberate calculation in the assembly of their beats, lyrics and evocative musical “hooks” to send a rocket to, well, Nep-tune and back. His exposition of the evolution of the “hit factory” takes place beginning early Euro-Pop then on to the Backstreet Boys (and their competitors), and next to the emergence of today’s worldwide stars. He devotes quite a bit of his reporting to how this is done for today’s A-listers such as Rihanna, Katy Perry and Kesha by a small and closely knit group of writers and producers. How and why the leading creatives achieved their prominence in today’s music scene is also finely threaded throughout the book.

Going to a Global Go-Go

As colorfully detailed, the US is often the center of the music industry, with many of its leading participants gravitating towards New York and Los Angeles. There are other key international personalities from Europe and Asia. Sweden in particular had first given a start several of the most influential producers with long histories of innovation in Europe. Later on, they brought their work to the US and achieved even greater commercial success.

Another tectonic disruption, online file-sharing, is explained but not pursued in great depth. Rather, and rightfully so, the author chose to examine how purchasing and downloaded MP3s is now giving way to rising volumes of streaming. He reports on the webwide phenomenon of Spotify’s business model, including its disparate economic impacts upon consumers and musicians. (These seven Subway Fold posts also cover a range of developments involving Spotify.)

Clearly and by definition, factories are places where products are fabricated and shipped.  Their operations must be periodically modernized in order to remain competitive. So too, it has become imperative for today’s music industry to adapt or face decline. The Hit Factory takes readers deep and wide into this unique and worldwide production system where hits by many of the mega-stars’ hits are indeed manufactured. Seabrook’s expert prose conveys the incredible effort, business sense and precision this enterprise requires.

Two Part Harmony

If you have the opportunity to do so, I highly recommend reading both The Song Factory and How Music Got Free (previously reviewed in this August 31, 2015 Subway Fold post), together for a comprehensive understanding of how the multi-billion dollar music industry had fallen and then reinvented itself to rise again. Each book individually, and even more so together, deftly captures this unique world’s intersections of art, science and commerce.

For yet another engrossing historical perspective on the state of the music business set a few decades earlier during the 70’s and 80’s rock era, I further suggest reading a highly entertaining account entitled Hit Men (Crown, 1990), by Frederick Dannen.

Finally, all of the foregoing aside for a moment, have things really changed that much in the pursuit of musical success? Once you have finished The Hit Factory, I urge you to also listen to The Byrds’ 2-minute classic hit single So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N Roll Star and then to reconsider your answer. This song’s sentiment rings as true today as it did way back then.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.