The social life of email at Enron – a new study

Probaby one of the few positive things to come out of the Enron scandle was that it gifted social scientists a data set of real corporate email that could be analysed for research purposes.

A recent study [PDF] used this data to look at ‘gossip’. Now hang on for a second before you jump to conclusions, lets define what we mean here. Anthropologists define gossip as:

“the absence of a third party from the conversation [and it] is fundamental to healthy societies—from small groups to large, formal organizations”

Bearing in mind the limitations of the data set (limited to one company) and potiential data quality issues, one of the interesting findings was about who was gossiping with whom:

Emailgossipenron

The authors observe that:

“gossip is present in both personal and business email and across all sections of the hierarchy, which demonstrates its all-pervasive nature in organizations. Next, we showed that the hierarchical position of an employee affects his gossip behavior, both in terms of his frequency of gossip and the audience with whom he gossips. Our re- sults indicate that people are most likely to gossip with their peers. 

They also note:

“frequent dyadic email interactions do not show an increase in gossip email. This fact raises more questions than answers. It might be the case that social contact between two people in an organization is not well captured by email exchanges; there may be other channels of communication.”

I suppose that what’s interesting about this research is to reflect on the fear that enterprise social software will simply provide a platform for employees to waste time, with idle chatter. However, organisations are fundamentally more complex than we often treat them. Looking at Kai’s research into how enterprise social networks (in this case, Yammer) are used in large companies we see patterns that appear to exclude gossip (as defined above).

My immediate thoughts are:

  • People in organisations will use technology tools to gossip if they provide the (perceived*) means for small group interaction – email currently fills this role very well, although private messaging or private groups in social platforms can provide the same capability.
  • The collaboration space within enterprise social platforms are typically open be default, so this is more likely to create outcomes that are anti-gossip because of the transparency. I would be interested to see if they actively reduce gossip or if it is simply offloaded to other channels or places.
  • Traditional intranets and information management tools fail to meet the human needs for gossip in organisations – the side effect is a huge cognitive dissonance between what these systems tell them and what gossip says.
  • People don’t need technology to gossip. They will always find otherways to gossip – at meetings, over lunch or standing in line for coffee.

*As the release of the Enron data set shows, corporate email isn’t really private.

Hat tip to The Atlantic.

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