What your work emails may say about the state of your company (Yeabsira Petros)
Since its collapse a decade ago, Enron has been a case study for business schools, ethicists and even psychologists. Now, a Chicago startup is using the fallen energy trader to test software that tracks human emotions in the workplace.
RelMap Software has developed mapping software that sifts through corporate communications and claims to be able to do everything from revealing workplace bullies to assessing the level of employee engagement. It’s designed to identify potential problems in the workplace before they escalate, a process founder Steve Pieczko calls “predictive analysis.”
Pieczko has been developing the software for about two years, and he needed a testbed. Someone told him thatmore than a half million emails from Enron employees were available on the internet.
By searching for certain words that represent strong emotions in employee emails, RelMap’s program flags possible issues and ma ps behavior patterns. It creates eight emotional rankings, ranging from “affection friendliness” and “enjoyment elation” to “anger loathing” and “humiliation shame.”
For example, RelMap found the emotional score for most Enron employees declined during 2001, as the company careened toward bankruptcy. The one exception: Ken Lay. His emotion state remained stable even as the company collapsed, Pieczko said.
By analyzing pronoun usage, RelMap offered some insights into the truthfulness of various employees. Based on the analysis, for example, Jeff Skilling was the least truthful, and Sherron Watkins was the most among the employees sampled.
Some of the broader patterns that emerged: company executives may become emotionally disconnected from a company as it fails, and they may display a false sense of security that the company is doing no wrong.
Pieczko is developing new algorithms to identify more patterns. He sees benefits for companies such as Goldman Sachs, which recently analyzed internal emails after it came to light that some employees referred to customers as “muppets.”
“I can tell you not only which employees are using the term `muppet,’ but which employees really hate their customers,” Pieczko told me.
It’s a little like the “pre-cogs” in the science fiction film “Minority Report” that predicted crimes before they were committed.
Workers, of course, don’t control their company email accounts, their employers do. Even so, Pieczko admits that employees at many companies might find the idea of software sifting through their messages to be “pretty creepy stuff.” He points out, though, that social media sites such as Facebook, Google and LinkedIn already do that and their millions of users think nothing of it.
RelMap, he said, isn’t Big Brother. It’s using metadata culled from emails to understand employees’ emotions and help them avoid workplace problems without exposing what they actually said in the messages.
“These are behavior patters that you could use to look at down the road,” Pieczko said. “I hope that someday this could be something very useful for companies.”
In other words, he’s hoping that buried in employees’ emails may be the information that prevents the next Enron.