A detailed study of 2,600 IBM workers' communications found those with "strong connections" to their bosses over IM, email, and social networks generate noticeably more billable hours. Seems unlikely, right? Well, yes and no.
Photo by jurvetson.
The big caveats to this study involve the profession they're in—IT consulting. That means that their financial imperative is to draw more billable hours out of the time and communication they put into IBM's infrastructure. So being a social presence with the higher-ups isn't just a team exercise for them, because for a consultant:
... It is crucial to avoid bench time as much as possible and increase utilizations by lining up projects ahead of time. At the same time, searching for high-value projects that command higher wages is also important, as these projects can generate higher revenue for each hour worked. Accessing a wider array of information about new project opportunities gives consultants the first mover advantage. Being the first to apply for high-value projects increases the likelihood of a consultant to be selected.
So, networking can land you new and better gigs to sell yourself on. Who'd have thought?
Still, in their actual performance on the jobs they've been booked for, the study has some positive things to report about giving your boss your IM handle. The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and IBM looked at email, IM buddy lists, social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, and every other communication protocol of thousands of workers over a year. They derived from all that bit-passing a theory that there's a sweet spot involving an experienced, knowledgeable manager, or a very small group of them working with bigger teams, and workers who build "strong ties" to them:
Receiving targeted and useful information directly from the manager with minimum information distortion, consultants with strong ties to management are even more likely to complete a project. This forms a virtuous cycle where strong connections to managers increase the chance of accomplishing a project, which then enhances a consultant‘s reputation and attracts even more connections to project managers.
From their giant pile of data, the researchers average out that workers with "strong ties," i.e. constant communication with the right people, earned $US588 more per month than the average of the 2,600 consultants, while those with "weak ties" drew $US98 per month less than the average. That drop, the study suggests, is due to consultants feeling confused about the direction of projects from contradictory management advice, multiple and mixed work requests, and, in the case of those avoiding contact altogether, otherwise feeling disconnected from the project direction. Also notable in the study is a finding that having a multiple general connections to colleagues at the same level doesn't really show a monetary benefit. So everything you've heard about too many cooks, and the usefulness of the office gossip? The more things change ...
For the last year, my own relationship with my immediate bosses has been almost entirely through group chat, instant messages, emails, and the very rare text message—and a one-off face-to-face meet with each of them. Non-net communication is so rare, in fact, that when I once received an afternoon phone call from a certain someone—let's call this person Ina Gratani—I did that thing where you try to formulate your new career plan between the first and second ring, because you're almost sure you're about to need it (I didn't, thankfully). So, let's go ahead and say that I've got a "strong connection" to my bosses through the net's social networks.
Misunderstandings are fewer than with face-to-face conversations and meetings, it seems, because everything's spelled out, archived, and, if necessary, CC'd, whereas face-to-face sessions introduce all kinds of deflections, tone/content disagreements, and failings from the faultiness of human memory. I'm pretty sure someone else I keep in constant contact with, who we'll call Ethan Smash, probably feels overwhelmed at least once a day by the Campfire chat messages, emails, and AIM/Gchat messages he has to clear and pass like so much aeroplane traffic on an ever-limited tarmac of time. But making sure you've always got something to say to the boss isn't a "strong connection."
What the study is suggesting is that you can maintain a presence with a supervisor through emails and IMs, sure, but in my own online life, it's the networks like Twitter, Flickr, and even the Gawker commenting system that granted a bit more insight into my superiors (it just so happens that none of us are notable Facebook fans). Like the study suggests, knowing what someone values, what someone's naturally opposed to and why, and having a sense of their personality and conversation style definitely helps when you're pitching something, or, especially, working over a project/post that went all wrong. When you total it up, that's a good deal more listening than chatting.
There's no billable hours to point to in this personal test case, and while I could maybe pick out a few successful items that were a direct result of a value-added connections with my bosses (like knowing my fickle want/do-not-want relationship the iPhone), making an appropriate social connection to your boss is a somewhat soft art, but one well worth trying to get better at.
Study: frequent IMs with your boss make you more productive [Ars Technica]