Does your e-mail reveal how productive you are?

Do things better.
Aug. 26 2009 7:04 AM

Sent Mail

Does your outbox reveal how productive you are?

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

How many e-mails did you send today? What time did you swipe in with your keycard? Did you IM your friends? Did you make changes to a shared document? When you went to lunch, did you bring your BlackBerry? If your boss walked in the door right now, could you say how productive you've been? You may not have a ready answer, but those digital breadcrumbs you've been leaving can answer for you.

Cataphora is a Silicon Valley company that tries to model what an "effective" employee looks like based upon her electronic trail. The company began in the e-discovery field, dealing with the massive corporate databases that are now routinely subpoenaed as trial evidence. Imagine you're a lawyer tasked with going through a few terabytes of e-mail to see if there's anything damaging to your client. A keyword search isn't going to cut it; the linguists and programmers at Cataphora (and similar companies) specialize in sifting through electronic records to figure out what's useful and relevant.

Over the years, Cataphora has helped out in many cases where it's useful to know whether an employee is thriving within the company. This may indicate whether he will be a cooperative witness. Or take the example of a whistle-blower. While it's against the law to conduct a witch hunt and fire the whistle-blower, it's very advantageous to know, before you get into court, who the whistle-blower may be (i.e., is it someone in a position to give a lot of information to the government?). When dealing with these kinds of issues, Cataphora started with the basic tradecraft assumption that a happy employee is unlikely to cause problems.

But how do you tell if an employee is happy and working in the company's best interest? I discussed this with Elizabeth Charnock, the CEO of Cataphora and a mathematician by training. Often, she and her co-workers start by determining the normal level of electronic activity for individuals at a company. Then they go hunting for any deviation from the norm. Cataphora looks for who's using all-caps (typically a sign of high emotion) or who is communicating with people on a distant part of the org chart—a relationship that makes no organizational sense. Companies typically have "shadow networks" of people who consistently message one another. They can be harmless, or not.

They also look for "call me" events, when something being discussed electronically is taken onto the phone. Another sign of "something very personal going on" (and potentially damaging) would be if two employees who share a language, like Russian, switch from English to their native tongue midcorrespondence. Cataphora can build filters that find out when people are revising their résumés. They also look at the first drafts of employee reviews on hard drives, which are often much harsher and more accurate than the versions filed to HR. Another filter looks for threads where an employee contradicts herself—instances in which she e-mails "Great idea, boss!" and then one minute later IMs her pals: "Can you believe the idiocy around here?"

This kind of bad-apple analysis leads to the inverse question: What does an effective employee look like electronically? Let's say you were a big company about to buy a hot new startup. Wouldn't it be nice to know which executives in your target company actually make the decisions?

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)."

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 23 2014 12:43 PM Occupy Wall Street How can Hillary Clinton be both a limousine liberal and a Saul Alinsky radical?
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 12:36 PM Krispy Kreme Stuffed Half a Million Calories Into One Box of Doughnuts
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 23 2014 11:33 AM High-Concept Stuff Designed to Remind People That They Don’t Need Stuff  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon Who Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.