Marshall Van Alstyne, an associate professor of information economics at Boston University and researcher at MIT Sloan School, presented some of his work at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government at a seminar co-hosted by the Program on Networked Governance and the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America programs at KSG.
Marshall has found two things of interest to employees: 1) workers who send shorter e-mails are more productive and have higher earnings than ones who send longer e-mails; and 2) workers who “batch” their e-mails (concentrating the sending/responding in certain focused hours of the day rather than letting them constantly interrupt one) had higher productivity and success. [Shorter e-mails work better because they are answered faster and thus speed the sender in getting the information that he/she needs. Marshall suggests that things that can't easily be captured in more direct simple e-mails are probably better for face-to-face or phone conversations.]
[The results on the shorter e-mail findings can be found here and another study, reported in the Guardian showed that letting e-mail constantly interrupt one is equivalent in loss of IQ to going sleepless for a night or using marijuana. Marshall noted that he would have liked to have been part of the latter control group.]
Of most relevance to social capital, Marshall has found ways to study the e-mails of an executive search firm over 10 months while still preserving employee confidentiality. The e-mails were summarized in terms of the frequency of various words (excluding common words) but then coded in a hashed form where the underlying words were not readable. These summaries enabled one to track the flow of terms through the networks and measure the benefits of network size (how many people you e-mail or e-mail you) and information diversity (how much congruence there is of the friends who one contact provides to the next) on things like how quickly people learn about *news* and *discussion* topics, how productive workers are, etc. They were paired with data about the individual’s demographics, position within company, history of who he/she worked with on teams, salary and productivity, and other information supplied by employees in a survey.
He finds interesting findings like:
- network size and information diversity are both positively related to getting news and discussion but there are declining marginal returns to network size, because as networks get bigger they provide less additional informational diversity.
- every additional word seen in one’s e-mail traffic was associated with an extra $70 of firm revenue; and people who receive information sooner completed placement projects sooner and generated more revenue; but there are also declining returns to information, potentially because of information overload.
- their charts suggest that for workers in this executive search firm, most of the benefit from their social networks could be achieved with 12 contacts in their network.
Marshall hopes — pardon his bold analogy — that his tools will follow an accelerated path from Anthony van Leeuwenhoek to Louise Pasteur. Anthony van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of the microscope which presaged Pasteur’s discovering germs and pasteurization by some 200 years, was originally discounted by English society. They laughed at his invention until a Cardinal blessed it and to this day Van Leeuwenhoek goes relatively un-noticed. Marshall hopes that his tools to analyze e-mail patterns will disseminate to important findings at a much faster clip than van Leeuwenhoek’s. And Marshall’s investigations are part of this new field of “computational social science” that we have previously written about and in which my colleague David Lazer in engaged.
For the papers by Marshall et al. see:
Aral, Sinan, Brynjolfsson, Erik and Van Alstyne, Marshall W., Productivity Effects of Information Diffusion in Networks
Aral, Sinan and Van Alstyne, Marshall W., Network Structure & Information Advantage