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Whodini: Extracting contact gold from messy inboxes

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Cutting edge collaboration tools and enterprise social software aside, for the great many of us, email is still how much of our work gets done. Every day a volley of questions, reports, updates and introductions flies back and forth creating an unofficial record of our work, our relationships and our productivity. What if an app could tap that reservoir of unstructured data to help you get more done?

That’s the principle behind year old, Los Altos, Calif. startup Whodini, which is currently in pilot. A sort of extremely pumped up address book or internal LinkedIn (s lnkd) alternative, the product scours the Outlook (s msft) accounts of employees of large companies, analyzing the content automatically to create a profile for each person, which lists their areas of expertise.

This profile is searchable by employees anywhere in the company, whether they’re based in Mumbai, India or Menlo Park, Calif. So if a sales guy in Chicago is looking for an expert on a prospective client or a complicated technical subject, all he needs to do is search Whodini to find colleagues in any part of the world with the knowledge he needs.

Making sense of the mess

Of course, our email accounts are messy places, full of invitations to lunch or maybe even personal missives about topics we’d rather not have broadcast to the company. But they’re also a very rich source of information, explains Co-Founder, President and COO Ani Chaudhuri, using a revealing back of the envelope calculation:

In a large company people send out between 30-50 emails in a day, so lets take the average of 40. Each email, and this is statistical, is about 60 words, so that’s about 2,400 words per day. Now 2,400 words times 200 is 480,000. That’s almost half a million words written every year by an employee.

Contrast that with the once- or twice-daily updates to enterprise social media – and the very rare times, instigated by HR nagging, that people update their profile in traditional company directories – and it’s clear why Whodini focuses on email and why, with the right analysis, that data could prove so useful. Whodini aims to make sense of that disorder and make the results searchable, with the minimum amount of effort on the part of users – no laborious updating, hashtagging or other effort required.

“People document stuff already; it was just not in a form in which it was usable. Our job is to take all that data that is floating around and making it accessible. We are an analytics company rather than a communication company,” says Chaudhuri.

And don’t fret that Whodini will accidentally reveal your embarrassing love of Civil War re-enactments or confidential negotiations. “We show the profile to you before anyone else can see it or search it. It’s all permissions-based,” stresses Bjorn Stromsness, the company’s director of business development, noting that users have absolute control of what goes public. Profiles are also constantly refreshed with users’ expertise in a given area decaying over time, so out-of-date keywords are unlikely to appear on profiles.

Who’s Whodini for?

Whodini isn’t for everyone, as the ability to pinpoint specialized knowledge is more valuable, and more difficult, in some contexts. “If you have a company of 10,000, but 9,000 of them are retail employees, you’re not going to find a lot of utility in what we’re doing,” says Stromsness.

But if yours is the type of firm that has expert knowledge spread across a large organization, the Whodini teams feels its product can make a big impact. “We see the product fitting particularly well within technology, energy, pharma and legal and consulting worlds,” says Stromsness. Large firms of 10,000 should derive the greatest benefit. “The more people you have [who are] having complex conversations, the better we’re going to work for you,” concludes Stromsness.

The product is also probably more beneficial for some types of employees than others, the team concedes. Braggarts and self-promoters, for instance, won’t prosper on Whodini as its evidence-based approach rewards no points for horn-tooting skills. Instead, the product is “the voice of the quiet achiever,” in the words of Stromsness.

“When people are self-nominating themselves for things, sometimes those are more aspiration than they are actual,” says Stromsness. But with Whodini, “everything is validated. If you want to know who’s dealing with a topic, you can find out who’s actually having those conversations as opposed to the person who might want to have those conversations.”

Forget notices of cookies in the break room or chatty camaraderie, Whodini takes a no-nonsense approach to work. “This isn’t about finding out if you’re passionate about cats. This is about finding out if you have worked on UI concepts,” says Stromsness.

What’s next?

The company has raised $2 million in angel funding, and the product is currently deployed in three locations with one more due to be added this week and a large company pilot in the works, but there’s no definitive date for a public launch as of yet. So what is on the horizon for Whodini?

Looking more long-term, the Whodini team isn’t troubled by constant chatter that email might be on its way out. According to Chaudhuri, rumors of email’s demise are highly exaggerated. “Instant messengers are being replaced by enterprise social networking. Email is not going anywhere,” he says.  And even if communication should move to another channel in the future, “we will absolutely tap into that,” says Chaudhuri.

In fact, future plans include connecting to “other email clients and maybe other sources of unstructured data as well,” according to Stromsness. Other product improvements in the works include scores, which measure each person’s level of expertise in a particular topic, and a once-a-week alert showing users who in the company is working on similar things and worth getting in touch with.

And as the product develops, another hot trend in the business world could benefit Whodini — the rise of remote working and dispersed organizations can only help a firm whose aids people in pinpointing exact expertise spread across the globe.

“The way we look at it is the current platforms, whether it is email, social networking or collaboration tools, all of them assume that you know the people that you need to know – the right people are already at the table. Are the right people really at the table? By discovering people that you don’t know we increase the possibility of having better people,” says Chaudhuri.

Who wouldn’t want to know the perfect person at that critical point in time? It’s a fabulous concept which all depends on the quality of the analysis whirring unseen inside the black box of Whodini’s proprietary technology. Pretty soon public, real world field tests will prove if this is not only an awesome idea, but also an awesome product.

At Net:Work, we’ll explore how companies can harness social tools — and the data from them — both now and in the not-so-distant future. The event will be held in San Francisco on Dec. 8.

Image courtesy of Whodini.

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