Enron, for all its ruination of pension funds, 401Ks, and public trust, did provide us with a rare and fertile data set: logs of 517,000 emails sent to around 15,000 employees by around 150 senior staff during the company’s last 18 months of existence. Ben Collingsworth and Ronaldo Menezes at the Florida Institute of Technology got their hands on the data, and went to town. As New Scientist reports, the researchers:
[I]dentified key events in Enron’s demise, such as the August 2001 resignation of CEO Jeffrey Skilling. They then examined the number of emails sent, and the groups that exchanged the messages, in the period around these events. They did not look at the emails’ content.
Menezes says he expected communication networks to change during moments of crisis. Yet the researchers found that the biggest changes actually happened around a month before. For example, the number of active email cliques, defined as groups in which every member has had direct email contact with every other member, jumped from 100 to almost 800 around a month before the December 2001 collapse. Messages were also increasingly exchanged within these groups and not shared with other employees.
Menezes thinks he and Collingsworth may have identified a characteristic change that occurs as stress builds within a company: employees start talking directly to people they feel comfortable with, and stop sharing information more widely.
So what can we do with this finding? Gilbert Peterson at the Air Force Institute of Technology thinks the trend could be useful as an early warning signal that the natives are restless (or revolting). “Human resources folk would probably find this extremely useful,” he told New Scientist.
Of course, if there’s been ceaseless fraud, corruption, and lying by your chairman and CEO, there’s not much HR can really do.