Enron blindsided a whole country with its multi-billion dollar collapse in December 2001. People who watched their retirement funds dry up overnight wondered, “Could we have seen this coming?”.

While Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling’s circle of fools shouldered most of the blame, there were many employees in the company aware of shady dealings. Now, scientists studying the emails released after the company’s collapse have found interesting patterns that could have been used to indicate a forthcoming problem in a company. The cool part? The scientist studied only who e-mailed who, and never once looked at the content of the emails.

friendwheel

Mapping a social network.

Using social networks”"not to be confused with social networking itself”" to reach interesting conclusions is nothing new. Researchers have found that you can reliably determine a person’s sexual orientation just by looking at his network of friends on Facebook, even if he has chosen not to respond to the “Interested In” field. Similar techniques have been used to show that everyone in the world really is connected to Kevin Bacon through six degrees.

Using this same concept, Ben Collingsworth and Ronaldo Menezes at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne studied the frequency of emails as well as the connections between those sending them. Instead of finding a drastic change in at the brink of crisis, the scientists found that the biggest changes actually took place a month before.

As workers began to sense danger, they began to turn their social networks inward, communicating more frequently with a smaller group of people whom they presumably trusted more. Instead of the 100 groups of people who were typically in direct contact with each other before, there suddenly became 800.

Of course, further evidence is always needed in science, and this case is no different. The problem is that privacy issues abound; no one likes an email snoop. Should these issues ever be overcome, the tools used to detect these patterns could prove very useful for HR departments in any company in the future as an early warning sign to problems.

About The Author

Michael Kaufmann, lover of all things science and gadget, is a contributing editor at Blast. He can be reached at [email protected]

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