Any Sociology PhDs Candidates Need a Corporate Culture Thesis Idea?

May 7, 2009 at 9:09 am | Posted in communication, Culture | 1 Comment

Our company has been playing with Yammer lately.  We’re using it like an internal Twitter for employees.  Officially it would be known as persistent chat since conversations do not get initiated and then shut down like an instant messaging chat would, but rather they stay open and people continually talk throughout the day.  It’s a virtual water cooler in the virtual office.

Here’s a scrubbed sample of how the conversations go:

Bill Malmsteen: nice job Alice et al on the call

12:11 PMreply

Joe Lynch in reply to Bill Malmsteen: +1 12:15 PMreply

James Emmett: On the con call w/Amy, Sue, Mary. Going well.

11:47 AMreply

Bill Malmsteen in reply to Joe Lynch: question in Q for you: 11:48 AMreply

Bill Malmsteen in reply to Bill Malmsteen: “What kind of assessments should customers be expecting from the providers? ” 11:48 AMreply

Daniel Emmett: Most of them will offer a type 2 but you have to be careful …

As I review the daily digests of conversation I get emailed, I’m fascinated.  And not as a technology analyst, but as a student of sociology (my minor in college a long time ago, now just a hobbyist). If one makes the assumption that the selection effect of those participating is minimal and that people are not acting differently in the chat than they would in real, public conversations, then what you have is a compiled record of a type of hallway chit-chat that occurs regularly in a business.  Actually I wouldn’t make these assumptions – I would validate them in private interviews with employees to make sure the conversation accurately represents the public face they use with their co-workers.  The tone of the conversation is somewhat moderated and averaged out by its public nature.  This is good for study – participants inadvertently conform to a common view of the the corporate culture, which yields a gold mine for any sociologist (or corporate anthropologist) that wants to study the impacts of corporate culture and lacked a good way to quantify it. 

The conversations are already in handy textual digest form, so all the researcher has to do is paste it into a spreadsheet or simple database and then get a bunch of grad students to tag each posting (a conversational text fragment) up. Sample tags could include:

  • Constructive tear-down, unconstructive tear-down, agreement
  • Non-work related (sub-category: sports, travel, restaurants, family)
  • Level of poster (CxO, executive, manager/director, worker)
  • Informative, asking for help
  • Detailed, uses jargon, high level

Once you’ve accumulated a large set of these statistics for a few dozen companies, correlate for key success factors such as growth, profitability, or average length of employee tenure.  You may now find statistically significant correlations between culture (as revealed by conversational tone and topics) and corporate success.  Persistent chat provides an easily searchable and taggable artifact for something that would be difficult or impossible to observe otherwise – casual conversation between a broad swath of employees with zero observer effect (where the fact that people know they are being observed by the researcher distorts their behavior).

I’ve noted already how the culture of Burton Group is what I would call “nice” – people enjoy the opportunity to compliment others and build on ideas.  Another company where I worked had a very different culture, where people wanted to be seen doing the best take-down of others possible and were granted status for being successful at it. I always felt that way, but now I could actually quantify this opinion if only I had a few grad students hanging around to tag up the transcripts for me …

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