Every e-mail message you send bears far more information than you might think.
Researchers are studying who sends mail to whom to explain the hidden maps of influence and collaboration that spring up inside organisations.
Workers are heavily interconnected
The maps reveal which groups are actually getting on with work, which people have become leaders or project managers and those people who are the opinion formers inside companies.
The research technique could also be used to identify leaders of tech-savvy criminal gangs or terrorist groups.
The study was carried out by Joshua Tyler, Dennis Wilkinson and Bernardo Huberman from Hewlett Packard's laboratories in Palo Alto, California.
The team studied more than one million messages sent over a two-month period by and between the 400 employees at the Palo Alto site.
The researchers discarded messages meant for groups larger than 10 people and those intended for people outside the Palo Alto lab.
To reveal the basic pattern of communication the researchers plotted who had sent messages to whom.
They revealed the communities within this by looking for links, often individuals, with high "betweenness". These are the infrequently used links that bind groups of highly connected individuals.
Once the links of high betweenness are removed, the map of e-mail relationships dissolves into communities. This map reveals how people actually work together, rather than how organisations believe, or think, they should.
The research reveals the communities of practice that spring up inside organisations and which actually help a company or group get things done.
Often project groups or departments call on experts or influential people elsewhere in an organisation to help them complete tasks.
These informal structures often bypass official hierarchies and can be very efficient at getting things done.
Before now revealing these informal power structures and expert networks has been a lengthy and much more difficult task.
"Our results suggest that meaningful insights about organization leadership can be drawn automatically from a simple record of communication interactions," wrote the researchers.
The team checked its results by conducting interviews with select individuals at the Palo Alto lab. The qualitative research revealed that the e-mail community mapping was a reliable guide to the way organisations work.