Does your e-mail reveal how productive you are?

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Aug. 26 2009 7:04 AM

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The most important employee isn't always the most prolific employee. Charnock says she once worked at place where the general feeling was: "If you produced a lot of content, you would get a raise." So, naturally: "Everyone was hell-bent on producing the most amount of crap as possible." How then to tease out quantity vs. quality? Cataphora determines which rarely occurring combinations of words are found regularly throughout e-mails, PowerPoint presentations, and so on. The originators of these textblocks—the employees whose content gets used over and over again—are arguably the ones making the biggest impact on the organization. "At the very least," Charnock says, "They are creating a work product that has been deemed valuable by a great many people."

Cataphora also analyzes someone's centrality: the person's importance within the network of the office as revealed by the electronic record. Some people think they are effective simply because they send lots and lots of e-mail, Charnock laughs. "Whenever we look at a company, the person who sends and receives the most e-mail is always the employee who plans the parties," she says. "Some people are more central than others. More in the hub of it, in the midst of what goes on." She gives the example of a bank manager who is in charge of the Asian money markets. Cataphora will analyze all communication related to the Asian market, and if the supposed Asia expert is not central in that map, there's a problem. You also have to be central to relevant topics. "If someone is bantering all day about the Yankees," Charnock explains, "they aren't central in a way that is of value to the employer (unless, of course, the employer is the Yankees)."

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When analyzing managers, Cataphora tries to determine who is passing the digital buck. One tendency of a bad manager is to forward e-mails with questions like What do you think of this? rather than offering specific ideas or meaningful instructions. In contrast, certain people in the organization collect and then answer many of these open-ended queries. They seem to be the people who are really making decisions.

You can also try to measure what a company actually spends its collective time thinking about. Cataphora builds maps of the conversations taking place throughout an organization. The longest discussions tend to be about something that's either extremely important or extremely trivial. One of the longest chains that Charnock has ever seen was when an executive sent a mass e-mail asking where he should get the flowers for his daughter's wedding. "Most things in large corporations are routine. You are not going to spend a lot of time on them by definition," Charnock explains. "You're not going to see management mindshare devoted to something unless it's new and interesting, or a disaster." Or flowers.

As the electronic record grows and we conduct more and more of our business and our conversations on company servers, more analytical firms will spoon through our digital soup. Their job is getting harder. E-mail has gotten much shorter and terser over the past eight years. In the workplace, we switch from IM to telephone to BlackBerry and often don't use any proper names. It's difficult to stitch these conversations together so that they make sense to outsiders. Yet some people still assume that anything they write will be lost in the giant sea of e-mail. Charnock says she still sees messages like: "I probably shouldn't put this in e-mail, but …"

Yes, it's lame if a manager needs to rely on an algorithm to figure out who her most valued employees are. Yes, the Big Brother-ish aspect of all of this gives one pause. But if you set aside that reaction, most of what Charnock is talking about is common sense. Are you in the mainstream of your workplace or off in a little eddy of your own? If so, why? Are you being productive in your own time and style or just getting really good at Desktop Tower Defense and wishing you did something else? Your electronic tracks don't indicate your true value as an employee—Who cracks better jokes in the weekly meeting? No one!—but it's naive to think they don't reveal anything at all.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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