Monday, December 14, 2009

A Study on Efficient Diffusion of News in an Organization

[joint work between Les Nelson, Rowan Nairn, Ed H. Chi]

In our knowledge economy, enterprises’ competitiveness often depend on the efficiency in which important news travels to the right people at the right times. Knowledge workers depend now heavily on communication channels both inside and outside the enterprise to be kept up to date on the most important information, such as the latest news on competitors, memos on human resources, status of business proposals, and the progress of workflows. The efficiency of news spread in an organization determines not just how the organization might absorb and make sense of the information, but also how it might decide to respond and react.

For example, one study of how email impacts an organization showed that one piece of email may create an organizational footprint that is 30 times larger [1]. A large body of literature surrounds the issue of news flow in organizations, including information seeking, organizational memory, and expertise location. For example, more specific to organizational information flow, sociological research shows that there is greater homogeneity of information within groups of people than between groups of people [2].

News in general is about the communication of current events, where the timeliness of the information is key. ‘Timeliness’ might not necessarily be limited to just up-to-the-minute, ‘breaking’ news. For example, one interviewee in one of our studies recently said: “It's about the leading edge of something. Staying current in a professional sense, I go through bouts of finding information. And I share it”. In the organization, this may constitute keeping up with information for ‘knowing what’ is happening and ‘knowing how’ to do things.

How can organizations better respond to the complex social and technical situation involved in staying current in their areas of business? With respect to news at work, what roles, tools, and practices might we expect in the brokering of news?


We recently conducted an interview study within our research organization. The company is an established research organization, having approximately 200 staff members in one location. Most employees belong to an approximately 5- to 10-person group (we will call this a ‘team’) organized into 4 larger multi-team groups. Each employee has an office, generally located near the rest of his or her group.

The company uses wikis for project and group knowledge repositories. The project wikis typically receive brief but intense activity (e,g, collecting web links on a topic), and then lapse into occasional use. Group wikis are updated infrequently, usually when there is organizational change (e.g., new projects and people). External blogs on topic areas promoted by the company are encouraged. Internal blogs receive infrequent use for general information sharing on topics of wide interest. Microblogging (e.g., was tried early, but did not persist.

Participants were chosen from a range of positions and tenure with the company, including staff members involved in the primary business production, service people in support of the staff members (e.g., marketing, administrators, staff services), managers, and executive level managers.

16 interviews were conducted in peoples’ offices, starting with a critical incident style interview on the most recent news events received, and then followed by explicit probing to elicit different ways in which news arrives, frequency of such news, and who was involved.


We have found a relatively mature practice of relying on the communication channels most commonly used at work, such as email and face-to-face. News not only travel along social networks in the organization, but also there is a strong effort in passing along news that known to be relevant. People are conservative in their choices. Moreover, people tune their social network to ensure they receive the appropriate news.

We find three major ways the company responds to getting receiving and transmitting news:

(1) Email is indeed the channel and medium of choice for news [3];

The figure below shows the frequency in which various ways of passing news back and forth are mentioned in the interview study. Although we find that news arrives and is diffused by many channels, with different levels of timeliness and audience, the primary means of communication is email (either directly or via company mailing lists) and face-to-face conversations in offices, hallways, and at lunch.

(2) News follows peoples’ social/work networks, and there is a strong effort to pass along only news seen as relevant to others;

People filter news streams for their peers as a part of their ongoing conversations at work. The filtering includes quality assessments, time investment appropriate for relaying the news, uniqueness of the news:

One subject said to us,
"I have to read it [news related email] to find out if it is unique enough. I do try to filter if it is worth forwarding. There is a huge quality assessment thing, because I would hate clogging peoples’ streams. I would probably send it to people who are actually engaged in a conversation of this type."

(3) People structure their news networks to get news conveyed in short paths of only the ‘necessary, but sufficient’ recipients. They do this by structuring the channel so that it produces quality news, finding ways to avoid unnecessary communication, or setting up shortest paths.

For example, one subject said on who to follow in Twitter:
"I went through [lots of] phases. Imagine a spiral. I could overhear conversations and pick up derivative connections. Then it got to be a little overwhelming so I went and winnowed those down... and again. The people you follow dictate the information you get. And there were three factors. One is how informative or interesting they were to my interests. The second one was how frequently they updated. If they updated 50 times a day I couldn’t keep up with that. And the third reason is strategically, who I want to build a relationship with".


We take from our findings above the following requirements for systems aimed at work news propagation:

1. Integrate into the email habitat to maximize chances of adoption;

2. Facilitate also putting news receivers in control. While email has its advantages, it is in some sense a sender-controlled system;

3. Allow targeting to continue but increase the chance of serendipitous but relevant connections in a way that keeps the social paths for news short and efficient;

4. Enhance the ability to target news to others without overloading email further;

5. Allow the emergence of shared interest spaces.


[1] IDC white paper "The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe: An Updated Forecast of Worldwide Information Growth Through 2011", 2008.

[2] Burt, R. S. 2004. Structural holes and good ideas. American Journal of Sociology 110, 2 (September), 349–99.

[3] Ducheneaut, N. ; Bellotti, V. Email as habitat: An exploration of embedded personal information management. ACM Interactions. 2001 September-October; 8 (5): 30-38.


Jodi Schneider said...

"5. Allow the emergence of shared interest spaces."

This is an important point. One of the best new ones I've seen is the crowdsourced digital humanities now:

We need more common spaces for building community around particular interests, especially interests outside technology.

Ed H. Chi said...


The emergence of shared interest spaces is easy when there is already an existing community, but when there isn't, aggregating the social attention and coalescing the energy to form a community is difficult. That's part of the research agenda.