“Eavesdropping” May Be Good At Work

For as long as we can remember, we were always taught not to eavesdrop on other conversations, and that eavesdropping was extremely rude. But, what if eavesdropping could actually help you perform better at work? For one company, this was actually the case.


Our group recently read, “The Unexpected Payoffs of Employee ‘Eavesdropping.'” What I liked about the article is that it took a very real problem that companies, departments and teams face, and provided concrete and achievable solutions to help solve that problem.

Now, before you go getting your glass cup, ready to listen at your coworker’s door or wall, understand that when we say “eavesdropping,” it doesn’t mean spying on conversations at the workplace. What this article means is that social networks and social sites such as Facebook can produce really useful information, information that is public and can be seen by anyone else. This helps people at the workplace understand who is doing what. Social sites also let people see who you are connected to and who you know, which helps people understand who knows who. Here is a great example from the article that shows how useful social networks and social sites can be.

The Problem

Professor Paul Leonardi at the University of California, Santa Barbara noticed a very serious problem for organizations, especially large ones: it’s really hard to share and get accurate information. He uses the example of the game telephone. You remember that game where you get in a line, and one person whispers to the next person a piece of information, and by the time it gets to the last person, that information is almost always inaccurate, unreliable and just plain wrong. The information tends to get that way, says Professor Leonardi, because as the message gets passed along, people choose to relay the message according to their own personal biases and preferences on what information they want to share and emphasize. It’s very common that organizations rely on this kind of communication, but what if there was a way for everyone to see information from the original source, rather than a second- or third-hand one?

The Experiment

To help find solutions to this problem of information sharing and who knows who, Professor Leonardi worked with Discover to conduct a social network experiment. Discover is a company with more than 15,000 employees, so you can imagine the internal problems it has with employees knowing the right information. It decided it wanted to have an informal channel where employees could get information, so it implemented Jive, a social network very similar to Facebook where a person has a profile, a wall, and you can see who that person knows. It also features a newsfeed so that you can see what your connections are doing and saying to others, as well as the ability to private message people.


To conduct the experiment, Professor Leonardi took two departments, marketing and operations, and allowed marketing to use Jive for the next six months, but did not allow operations to. Both departments were responsible for taking the same survey at the beginning of the experiment, which asked how accurately employees could identify who knew who, and they also had to identify who knew whom. The results from that survey showed that both departments scored fairly evenly in how well they knew other people in their department and how well they knew who knew whom.

The Results

After the six-month period of the marketing department using Jive, and the operations department continuing as it always had without Jive, employees were given the same survey they originally took. What do you think happened?

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If you guessed that the marketing department was able to identify more people in their department and also identify who knew whom more, then you guessed right! But, how much better do you think the marketing department did? (This one may be harder for you to guess). Employees in marketing were able to identify other people in their department 30 percent better after using Jive, and they were able to identify who knew whom in their department 88 percent better after using Jive. That’s a big difference!! As far as the operations department goes, it turns out employees did not significantly improve at all over the course of six months.

What’s really interesting about this whole experiment is that when Professor Leonardi asked the employees in marketing if they had learned anything after being on Jive for six months, employees were adamant that they had learned absolutely nothing. Weird, right? How could you use a program like that for half a year, and then say that being on there taught you nothing?!? Once Professor Leonardi probed a little bit deeper into a person’s actions and connections on Jive, the employee would eventually realize they did learn something, but it’s so interesting that people were learning without even realizing that they were learning.

Because of Jive, employees reduced the amount of work that was duplicated and innovation within the company increased. Not bad for using a social network site at work!


There have been other great articles like this and this, supporting the internal use of social networks and sites at work. It makes total sense because after all, not only are employees communicating more, being more productive and coming up with more ideas, but they also start to feel more connected to the organization, leading to higher morale and increased company loyalty. It’s really important for an organization to continue to use social networks and sites, even if it doesn’t think they are seeing results, because as Professor Leonardi’s experiment shows us, the results are there, it just may not be in the employee’s minds.

There are a lot of benefits to having a Jive-like network at the workplace, but perhaps it would be more effective for larger departments at larger organizations. I used to work in a department of 30 people, and I can’t really imagine using Jive to help me discover new information, because I already knew everyone in the department, and would see them on a daily basis. Conversations around what we were working on and new ideas happened very informally and regularly because we were all located in the same area. I now work in a department of 200 people and we are spread out on three different floors, so it’s much harder to see people and make connections. I could definitely see the benefit of using a social network in my current role.

By simply becoming more aware of what’s happening at your workplace through social networks and sites, you are slowly and steadily building your knowledge bank up over time. You may not think the information you are seeing over the social networks are helpful when you read it, but it can come in handy down the road. Companies that start to pay attention to this important area of communication and collaboration will start to see great results. Does anyone have any experience using sites like Jive at work?


  1. Nice post. I hope you liked the article, as the researcher is a colleague of mine (which is why I didn’t do the interview). I still think SM can have a benefit in smaller firms. Its may not help you “overhear” what other people are doing (as they already can in a small office), but it may help you organize communication better. Even email threads with 30 people on them can get overwhelming!

  2. I found this very interesting. I was not surprised to hear that employees did better on the survey after using Jive, but the fact that they thought they learned nothing really stuck with me. I understand how important awareness is, but I feel like other people greatly underestimate it for the most part. In addition, I thought this was a great summary as my group didn’t read this article, so thanks for that!

  3. Very cool post, I like how you separated it based on the experiment and the results and organized it in a very comprehensive manner. While I am a bit hesitant to welcome eavesdropping into the workplace, especially because we already struggle with CCing every email to the entire workforce in order to cover bases, I understand that it is crucial to keep people on the same page. This keeps the company united and constantly communicating.

  4. Nicely done! I was part of the Jive launch at my last company and managed the my division’s sales section. Enterprise-wide, it was used as our Intranet, so all employee communications were managed through the site (along with emails). With over 150 sales reps in the US – plus dozens internationally – it was very helpful for our marketing team to communicate to sales. We mostly used it as a document management system for our collateral and presentation decks – and we shared competitive intelligence and campaign information. The whole social part of the platform did not really come to fruition for my area. Very few reps posted updates about things they learned in the field as we had hoped. Additionally, reps weren’t going into the platform unless I sent an email saying that there was new information for them to check out. ‘t was not really a match for the sales team’s culture. With that said, I could definitely see this working at other companies that are younger or are more collaborative in nature.

  5. I can easily see the benefit of this and how it could be helpful at the Real Estate company I am currently interning at. By people in the different divisions posting about what deal they are working on, it will give others a connection to a potential client that they did not know beforehand. It would also double as a way for new business if one group could not reach a deal with a client because of their location, then they could pass the business of to someone else within the company instead of letting that person’s business go elsewhere.

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