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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.
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.
- 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.