October 14, 2003

Internal E-mail: Take Me to Your Leader

Nature Science Update has an intriguing report on HP's own organizational study, "E-mail Reveals Real Leaders".

Researchers at Hewlett Packard have "developed a way to use e-mail exchanges to build a map of the structure of an organization. The map shows the teams in which people actually work, as opposed to those they are assigned to."

In other words, they're studying the flow of e-mail to learn how their organization really works -- who speaks to whom, who holds the real power, etc.

In essence, large organizations tend to divide into informal collaborative networks, called "communities of practice." Sound familiar? Large law firms formally divide themselves into practice groups, or formal silos. However, there's often a lot of cross-talk via e-mail, except that no one really knows who's talking to whom. That's why identifying the informal "communities of practice" is otherwise so elusive. This time around, e-mail provides a nice big bread crumb trail. Just as Google's results ranking algorithms make heavy use of inbound web site linkages, it seems that HP's methods are doing something along similar conceptual lines with internal e-mail.

With all the KM buzz, wouldn't it be handy to have a visual map of your organization's leaders "in the trenches", and perhaps even more importantly, determine who are the real influencers? My thinking is that if you consider an organization's people to be its brain cells, then the mapping the e-mail communication between them is akin to mapping that brain's neural network.

As firms create more virtual and cross-functional teams, the lines blur and having good information on how the organization truly functions can provide vital feedback for their leaders. Is it functioning efficiently, or is it having seizures and blockages instead, in which case vital segments are routing work around them to accomplish their projects?

By the way, the article references other such endeavors over the past several years. While this is probably too cerebral for most organizations, as well as a potential threat to some in formal management, it could be an emerging technology worth watching.

In fact, it occurs to me that something like this could be quite effective in electronic discovery cases. Imagine showing the jury a visual map illustrating how and when key e-mails were circulated throughout a company. No doubt you've heard of TimeMap for preparing timeline exhibits. How about MailMap? (In case any developers are reading this, I'll gladly accept royalty checks. ;^)

Topic(s):   Electronic Discovery  |  Law Practice Management
Posted by Jeff Beard