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Profit potential laid bare in e-mail links

The social networks we navigate at work are not only key factors in how we perform, they impact on the bottom line as well

TECHNOLOGY has finally caught up with a very bright idea: social network analysis. Whose brains we pick, how often and why can be mapped via e-mail as a complex web of professional relationships very different from the traditional boss-down reporting charts.

This is bad news for the office slacker who just sits in a corner avoiding work, but will social network analysis make everyone else’s working life hell? Just the opposite, says Peter Cheese, managing director of the human performance practice at Accenture, the consultancy. “Collaboration is human nature, particularly for the younger generation — sharing and collaborating is something they want to do.” In the past, he says, organisations have been better at putting up walls and creating dead ends than enabling information to flow.

E-mail is a simple way to track social networks, according to Mark Newman, the CEO of the software development firm Morphix Company: “What we find is that e-mail mirrors the business relationships in an organisation.” MetaSight, an e-mail management programme developed by Morphix, reads e-mail envelopes and stores their sender, recipient and subject information, without reading the content. Newman says that it enables employers “to see who knows who and who knows what”.

On the flipside, employees discover that they can spend their time more profitably: “It enables you to search for colleagues in your organisation who might be interested in your topic. Work becomes more fulfilling . . . they get to work with people who can really help them get the work done.”

 Should employees be worried about their privacy? Newman is sensitive to this charge and MetaSight allows users to opt out by marking their e-mails private and confidential. Privacy could be the least of your worries if you find yourself on the periphery of your boss’s social network map.

“I know who I named (in my network) but when I look at the map, I might see that person didn’t name me back,” Tracy Cox, director of enterprise integration at the US defence contractor Raytheon Co, tells Business Week (Feb 27). Now that hypothetical employee “knows that he isn’t valuable to his boss. And not only does he know it, but 50 of his closest friends know it too.”

Cheese describes social network analysis as the “next generation of knowledge management” which could become standard practice for managers rather than a specialist HR practice, or an IT project. This will require a culture change: “We have to value and reward the extent to which you share knowledge and make yourself available to share knowledge,” he says.

The bottom-line benefit is potentially enormous. How companies react to change, how quickly and effectively they gather information from inside the organisation and from customers and suppliers, is a “big competitive differentiator”, Cheese says.

Failing to find new ways to identify and pass on knowledge and experience is unthinkable. If 80 per cent to 90 per cent of an organisation’s smarts remain invisible, the imminent retirement of legions of baby-boomers will be hugely damaging to UK Plc. Playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon, sorry, separation could become a matter of corporate survival.

(Timesonline 02 - 03 - 2006)

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