What Work Email Can Reveal About Performance and Potential
In many offices, using digital tools to chat or collaborate with colleagues is the norm — even with people you sit right next to. Tools like Skype, Slack, and old-fashioned email are convenient and a bit addictive.
But while digital collaboration can be useful and engaging, we all know it can also be a mixed blessing. A strategic approach to managing digital networks and collaboration at the company level can help us better understand which types of digital communication are productive, to both employees and the firm.
After all, digital tools generate data; some companies are now creating next-generation products with built-in analytics about the networks that they enable. (Disclosure: this includes Microsoft, which bought my former company, VoloMetrix, to help make that happen for core business systems like email.
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Before being acquired, we spent years working with executives in large enterprises to help them identify and understand patterns about how people communicate digitally. The data from the following real-life examples shows that email and other tools are surprisingly relevant to the core performance of individuals and the business in three interesting ways.
Strong networks can predict performance. A high-growth, successful software company compared a year of anonymized email network data for people in all job functions, looking at high versus low performance ratings. The highest performers had 36% larger “strong ties” internal networks (ones that connect at least biweekly in small-group messages) than average performers, while the low performers had 6% smaller networks than average. The size and strength of peoples’ networks actually helped to predict year-over-year changes in performance better than managers could. Being intensely engaged in online collaboration seemed to independently drive employee performance.
We also saw this pattern in the sales departments of other B2B sales organizations we worked with. At one software company, top salespeople were connected digitally with 10 more colleagues on average — internal networks nearly 25% larger than low performers’. In fact, predictive sales performance models that used social graph data (in the form of the structure of peoples’ networks) often showed that internal connections mattered even more than external connections did.
Large networks can predict potential. Some companies have engagement programs designed to further the careers of junior employees with high potential. These programs direct special development and retention resources to employees who have been identified as having an opportunity to be future leaders at the company.
When a large utility company examined the networks of several hundred of these high-potential employees, the data showed that they were often the most connected, even compared to other high performers in the company. High-potential employees’ networks were 52% larger than average, but there was actually a subset of program participants whose networks were below average. Managers said that the less-connected group represented people with great skills or ideas but potentially less of the extraversion or emotional intelligence required to translate their talents into influence. There was an opportunity to help these people gain a broader audience, especially an audience of well-connected “agents” who could bring their ideas into the spotlight.
But size doesn’t always matter. So should everyone be encouraged to simply grow their digital networks as much as possible? Maybe so, if all connections were created equal — but that isn’t the case. Given the same number of connections, some networks are more effective than others if they include highly influential people. A large hardware company we work with took its analysis a step further than most firms in order to investigate the composition and quality of a sales rep’s network. It found that the involvement of certain sales roles is related to a tenfold improvement in customer deal size. It also discovered that certain sales roles are simply a “middleman” in bringing other roles along and do not clearly demonstrate the leadership expectations that they were entrusted with.
Uncovering these patterns and insights is a good first step. But what can organizations do once they see the data about networks and performance? The specific approaches are as varied as the companies, but they can broadly be categorized as awareness or prediction. With an awareness approach, leadership crafts communications about the importance of networks, provides tools for network analytics or management, and keeps the faith that employees will receive the message and take action. This approach is usually well-received, and it can also work alongside the second approach: predicting business outcomes. Prediction is less common because surprisingly few management processes actually incorporate prediction today, but that is changing. Sales organizations are on the leading edge of using network metrics to predict what will happen — specifically, which deals will close.
Ubiquitous digital data about human behavior has the power reshape the workplace over the next few years for the better. As company-specific examples show, digital communication that’s seen as a burden may turn out to be a blessing for employees and organizations. But in order to enable our uniquely human skills, like building relationships and coaching each other to do better, any insights must be used thoughtfully and with both technology and people in mind. In fact, that may be the biggest takeaway from the open office design elements employees ignore: you can build it, but without the data on how people actually work and communicate, your efforts may not make connections more meaningful and efficient.