EMAIL logs can provide advance warning of an organisation reaching crisis point. That’s the tantalising suggestion to emerge from the pattern of messages exchanged by Enron employees.
After US energy giant Enron collapsed in December 2001, federal investigators obtained records of emails sent by around 150 senior staff during the company’s final 18 months. The logs, which record 517,000 emails sent to around 15,000 employees, provide a rare insight into how communication within an organisation changes during stressful times.
Ben Collingsworth and Ronaldo Menezes at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne identified key events in Enron’s demise, such as the August 2001 resignation of CEO Jeffrey Skilling. They then examined the number of emails sent, and the groups that exchanged the messages, in the period around these events. They did not look at the emails’ content.
Menezes says he expected communication networks to change during moments of crisis. Yet the researchers found that the biggest changes actually happened around a month before. For example, the number of active email cliques, defined as groups in which every member has had direct email contact with every other member, jumped from 100 to almost 800 around a month before the December 2001 collapse. Messages were also increasingly exchanged within these groups and not shared with other employees.
Menezes thinks he and Collingsworth may have identified a characteristic change that occurs as stress builds within a company: employees start talking directly to people they feel comfortable with, and stop sharing information more widely. They presented their findings at the International Workshop on Complex Networks, held last month in Catania, Italy.