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How smart IT workers know when their company's doomed

According to researchers in Florida, e-mail patterns give a very large clue as to the potential demise of a company.

Some intellectuals want to study humanity. Others just want to study humanity's e-mails.

Which can, sometimes, be more fascinating than the people who wrote them.

A couple of researchers at the Florida Institute of Technology seem to be in the e-mail study camp. Or perhaps there was simply nothing better to think about in Melbourne, Fla., recently.

In any case, they took it upon themselves to examine the e-mails sent at Enron, specifically, how the e-mailing patterns changed as Enron was revealed to be channeling the spirit of Bernie Madoff, rather than Bernie Mac or Bernie Kosar.

The researchers, Ben Collingsworth and Ronaldo Menezes, concluded, according to a report in New Scientist, that e-mailing patterns just might be a rather accurate barometer of your company's innards.

I wonder who else was in their e-mail group. CC Alex-S/Flickr

Collingsworth and Menezes thought it might be fun to see whether the pattern of e-mails written at the time of the resignation of Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling in 2001 might carve out a dainty paisley or the Rorschach inkblot of a disturbed dipsomaniac.

They simply looked at who sent e-mails to whom and how many were sent.

What they discovered was that a month before Skilling fell on his letter-opener, the number of active e-mail cliques--the researchers defined them as e-mail groups in which every member had direct e-mail contact with each other--rose from 100 to 800.

Here's the other characteristic that seemed to foreshadow the spilling of corporate o-positive: more messages were sent within these groups to the exclusion of anyone else in the company.

There is one small downside to this kind of research: most organizations won't let you look at e-mail logs because of concerns about privacy, which is totally understandable.

However, I have a fanciful notion, perhaps slightly fueled by the high level of discourse in the tech world, that techies can, in the privacy of their own PC world, discover everything that is electronically occurring in their domain.

So I wonder whether, in the depths of corporate IT departments across the world, there are clever people studying the finely-weaved patterns of their company's e-mail behavior.

Not out of some misplaced, droopy-headed snoopiness. But because, well, there's a recession out there and they need to know whether their employers will still be their employers when the sun rises.