Email Conversation Network Analysis

Social network analysis of email traffic opens an evidence-based window on organizational structures and processes.
Email Conversation Network Analysis

email conversation network

We live in the age of information overload. A typical characteristic is, that there's many things that we don't know that we know. Many organizations are sitting on a veritable gold mine of precious process data, but are struggling to make sense of it.

Email traffic data is a great example: everyone has a pile of it, hardly anyone performs effective email traffic analysis.

Let me give you an example, of how useful this can be.

As part of a recent project for Siemens Energy we performed about 20 interviews with Siemens clients and employees, in an attempt to obtain clarity about the organizational structure, work flows and communications patterns. That resulted in a nice flow chart with boxes and arrows depicting the communications flows.

However, after each new interview we had to modify the flow chart; every employee painted a subtly different picture of what was going on. That is troubling, because it means that every employee has a different perception of how the organization functions. That's a source of friction and misunderstandings in communications and daily operations.

We also studied scores of official work flow documents, but it soon became clear that: a) these documents did not describe reality; and b) nobody actually read or used them.

Email Analysis To The Rescue

We also had one other data source though. We had requested access to emails exchanged around a typical project, in order to get a better grip on the subject matter. One guy in our team performed a content analysis of those emails; this more or less confirmed what we already knew about the Siemens work flows.

Far more interesting though, were the results that emerged from performing a social network analysis on that email conversation. If you click to enlarge, you can see the picture.

This shows a social map where each person is represented by a colored circle. Each email communication is shown as an arrow from the sender to the recipient (multiple arrows in case of multiple recipients). So far, so good. Just by comparing the social network graph with the flow chart I made, I could see the similarities and guess who performed which role.

But then I noticed some strange patterns and adjusted my software to color-code people according to the ratio of incoming versus outgoing emails, resulting in the picture you're seeing. Blue circles represent people who sent emails, but never got a reply. Red circles are people who received emails, but never bothered to answer. Green and yellow have balanced inbound/outbound communications.

Evidence-based management

What this tells you, is that there's a lot of dead-end messaging going on. Too much blue and certainly too much red. A follow-up interview revealed that this was correct; sometimes people reply to an email by phone. Sometimes they just don't reply at all.

Much more importantly though, and this was immediately picked up by the client: actual communications processes are much more messy than you'd think, if you trusted the neat flowcharts in your document management system.

Social networking analytics open up a new window on the actual processes going on in an organization, enabling an evidence-based approach to optimizing work flows and communication processes.

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