Predicting E-mail Effects in Organisations by Eric Williams
First Monday
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By the 21st century electronic mail (e-mail) will be a pervasive communication medium creating new possibilities and having unforeseen consequences in organisations. This paper attempts to predict e-mail developments and subsequent issues in organisations. System designers and managers need to look beyond the efficiency and productivity gains of technology to second level effects in order find the primary e-mail issue for organisations with the continued expansion of global telecommunications networks.


E-mail in Use
E-mail Developments
Technology and Organisations
E-mail and Organisations
Looking Ahead at E-mail and Organisations

With the continuing expansion of global telecommunications networks further advances can be expected in intracorporate and intercorporate electronic links in organisations. Advances can then be expected in computer-mediated communications, including electronic mail (e-mail), that will create new issues for organisations. Furthermore, it has been claimed (Negroponte, 1995) that in the next millennium e-mail will be the dominant interpersonal telecommunications medium, "approaching if not overshadowing voice." The expansion of e-mail as a communication medium will create new possibilities and have unforeseen consequences for users and organisations (Rudy, 1996). The purpose of this paper is to predict e-mail developments and subsequent issues in organisations.

Having firstly defined e-mail technology, this paper briefly summarises recent literature regarding e-mail effects and organisations. Some recent technological developments are then outlined and compared with previous technological advancements that have effected organisational communications in the recent past. Examples of e-mail effects in organisations are then detailed before suggesting it is necessary to look beyond efficiency and productivity gains from technology to second level effects as the primary e-mail issue for organisations with the continuing expansion of global telecommunications networks.

E-mail in Use

In a review of information technologies, Culnan & Markus (1987) defined electronic media as interactive, computer-mediated technologies that facilitate two-way interpersonal communication among individuals or groups. They suggested that the introduction of new technologies that alter communication activities in organisations have the potential to influence key aspects of organisational structure and process. Electronic mail has been defined as "the entry, storage, processing, distribution and reception, from one account to one or more accounts, of digitized text by means of a central computer" (Rice, Grant, Schmitz & Torobin, 1990). While a recent definition (Kettinger & Grover, 1997) views e-mail as a computer system for the exchange of messages and other information that may include text and numerical data, computer programs, video, graphics and sound. E-mail features apparent to those who have used the medium include asynchronous discussion, data sharing, message composition and possible information overload.

Rudy (1996) in a relatively recent review of e-mail research comprehensively discusses the two dimensions of e-mail research, media choice and media effects. Rudy concludes that information overload is an important area in the context of e-mail and the growing use of the Internet, and that rather than think of e-mail as a unique technology, we should think of it as just another way for humans to interact. Garton & Wellman (1995) reviewed research literature into how e-mail shapes, and is shaped by organisational structures and processes. They conclude that e-mail increases access to people and information in organisations, that changes associated with e-mail use are socially as well as technically determined and, when people communicate electronically, work groups become more fluid. In a study of how inter-organisational e-mail systems are being used and what factors are related to usage, Kettinger & Grover (1997) found that e-mail has become an important method of broadcast, task and social inter-organisational communication. Broadcast use includes public bulletin boards, list servers and discussion groups. Task use refers to communication required to accomplish group work including information dissemination, problem solving, and project coordination. While social use reflects the ability to participate in educational/entertainment activities, create and maintain personal contacts, and seek job diversion. Furthermore, study respondents reported that the Internet is altering organisational arrangements and the way they conduct business.

The broadcast dimension of e-mail testifies to the information overload characteristic of the medium. This is supported by Bikson & Eveland (1990) who discovered a frequent finding of e-mail studies was more messages are received than sent. Furthermore, Zmud (1990) states the paramount information problem faced by most managers in organisations was the overabundance of data. Sproull & Kiesler (1986) claimed that e-mail not only increases the speed of information exchange, but also leads to an exchange of new information. Sproull & Kiesler (1992) later raised the idea that e-mail increased the number of connections in an organisation and hence increased information and work load.

E-mail Developments

Until recently practical solutions to e-mail overload have been few. Mackay (1988) discussed user strategies in dealing with overload while Finholt & Sproull (1990) found information overload self-policing in an organisation. Intelligent agents are a recent development. These are autonomous software programs, or agents, that perform local tasks and interact with each other and with users (Muller, 1996). Intelligent software agents can cope with e-mail overload. These agents learn from users as they handle their e-mail. As a user performs actions, the agent memorises the situation-action pairs and then attempts to replicate or predict the user action(s) in similar situations based on the examples stored in its memory. An agent gradually gains competence by observing the user and acquiring more examples, however, it is possible for the user to instruct the agent explicitly [1]. Intelligent software agents will alter human-computer interaction as users delegate tasks to personalised agents acting on the their behalf (Maes, 1994). But perhaps more importantly, the intelligent intermediary will alter the perceived human to human interaction.

Another recent development to increase the effectiveness of electronically mediated communication is sensory predicate matching (Crook & Booth, 1997). Sensory predicates are word choices that enhance rapport between an author and reader of a message and refer to the three primary senses; visual, auditory and kinesthetic that individuals use, and prefer, in written communication (Bandler & Grinder, 1975). However, the concept was adopted from speech accommodation theory, which states that oral communicators adjust their speech styles to meet that of the person with whom they are communicating (Street & Giles, 1982). Using a software program that detects sensory predicates allows an e-mail writer to identify a reader's preferred communication channel, visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, and develop a message stylised for the reader. Software agents such as this may assist in task oriented electronic messaging by reducing uncertainty or equivocality, where the former means an absence of information and the latter ambiguity or the existence of multiple and conflicting interpretations (Daft & Lengel, 1986). However, it is also recognised that factors such as context, message purpose and the relationship between the reader and writer may also achieve this purpose (Crook & Booth, 1997).

It has also been suggested that tools should be available to recognise and manipulate threads, collections of messages with a common subject, in e-mail and other electronic messages (Lewis & Knowles, 1997). Sensory predication and intelligent software agents are advancements in e-mail technology. Such advancements will, no doubt, assist individuals in organisations to process e-mail communications and in doing so alter organisational communication activity.

Technology and Organisations

An organisation can be viewed as a human communication system in which networks of human nodes are linked internally, in a variety of ways, and with the external environment. To organise is to assemble ongoing interdependent actions into a sequence that generates an outcome (Weick, 1979). It is through communication that individuals and groups organise and hence, how organisations are created and maintained. (Zmud, Lind & Young, 1990). It has been suggested that the introduction of new technologies coupled with an increasing demand for faster and better forms of interaction alter communication activities and influence organisational communications (Culnan & Markus, 1987; Yates & Orlikowski, 1992). Changes in organisational communication in turn influence organisational structures and processes (Weick, 1979; Giddens, 1984).

Huber (1990) proposes a theory to describe this effect, a theory of effects of advanced information technologies on organisational design, intelligence and decision making. He states that the availability of advanced information technologies, e-mail can be included in this category, extends the range of communication and decision making options available. This encourages technology use, leading to improved task performance, which in turn leads to more frequent use of advanced information technologies. Changes in information technology in an organisation influences individual communication in an organisation and, almost paradoxically, the individuals in an organisation influence information technology.

For example Yates (1989b) described the development of the internal management memorandum or memo, that "traditionally documents intra-organisational communication and identified by its distinct heading" (Orlikowski & Yates, 1994), as a response to the demands of an emerging management style in American organisations at the turn of this century. Between 1870 and 1920 internal correspondence in manufacturing firms increased in volume and changed in social motive, reflecting socio-economic changes occurring at the time. Single management layer organisations had grown, departmentalised and acquired multiple management layers (Yates, 1989a). Where management was once by ad hoc oral methods, a new management ideology emerged that stressed the importance of documenting operational processes and establishing flows of written communication for internal coordination and control. It was the new management ideology interacting with situational factors, including communication media, which triggered the evolution of the memorandum (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992).

Yates traced how industrial productivity, expanding mass markets and carbon paper along with new philosophies of management converged to shape a new organisational communication form, the memo (Holmes, 1995). In an earlier study Yates (1982; Markus & Yates, 1982) asserted that the invention of the vertical filing cabinet assisted in the development of the interoffice memo and new administrative structures for centralised filing. Alternatively the growth and expanded functions of the memo created new demands for the storage and retrieval of written communication that encouraged the development and adoption of vertical filing systems that organised correspondence by subject, rather than chronology, to facilitate document retrieval.

A further technological innovation in response to organisational demands for documentation was the typewriter. The typewriter allowed standardisation of memo rules and norms across organisations and created a new occupational group, the typist (Yates, 1989b). Furthermore, the typewriter and other office equipment created a division of labour that allowed women to enter the clerical work force in large numbers (Rotella, 1981a; 1981b). In Japan, however, the typewriter did not come into widespread business use. The Japanese language structure made Japanese typewriters expensive, difficult to use and slow. Thus, the organisation of Japanese offices developed in a way that differed sharply from western offices (Sproull & Kiesler, 1992). This suggests that technology is developed and modified within specific contexts, and that the effects of technology are not necessarily universal.

Yates (1989b) also found that although the telephone facilitated oral communication it did not satisfy management demands for documentation. However, the introduction of the telephone in organisations created new occupational groups, the switchboard operator and secretary (Pool, 1983) and lead to the demise of the office boy or messenger. Pool (1983) credits the telephone with having created the separation of management and operations in organisations, and further credits the technology with the development of an organisational icon, the skyscraper. Huber & McDaniel (1986) claim that without telephones corporations could not have become as large as they have, and suggest that any significant advance in information technology eventually leads to the recognition and implementation of new organisational design options. Chandler (1977), for example, argues that the telegraph enabled the coordination necessary for the development of centralised organisational forms characteristic of U. S. railroad firms.

E-mail and Organisations

The memo form as discussed previously was created, transmitted and stored on paper. With the advent of computers and the demand for faster communication and access to information, a new medium of organisational communication, electronic mail, was created (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992). Designers have embedded memo features into the medium such as the To:, From: and Subject: format. Yet digital electronic mail differs from paper in its capabilities therefore creating new opportunities and constraints in the medium and in organisational use. E-mail allows asynchronous exchanges, digital storage capabilities and rapid message retrieval. Electronic mail systems can be been linked to external multi-node networks such as Bitnet, CompuServe and the Internet, making them useful for external organisational communication. E-mail services can inform the sender when the mail recipient has opened (and read) the message content or if delivery is successful. However, e-mail can also be unforgiving with carelessly addressed messages. E-mail is routed by computers not people; smart software may eventually mimic a postal delivery system, but for now, accuracy in addressing is mandatory (Morrisett, 1996).

E-mail has mutated the evolution of the internal business memo as organisational members selectively draw upon rules and norms associated with the memo when using e-mail, a new communication medium. However, this new electronic form should not be directly equated with the memo form. It is a new communication medium and communication activity that has appropriated attributes from a broad selection of organisational communication artefacts. It has been suggested that the emergence of new norms occurs when individuals are confronted with a new communication medium, and in the absence of explicit rules, simply transfer existing norms and established habits from a familiar situation to the new one (Orlikowski & Yates, 1994). The tendency to use familiar concepts when placed in a new or unfamiliar situation has been acknowledged in earlier organisational studies (Weick, 1979; van Maanen, 1984). Sometimes rule characteristics of face-to-face dialogue are used, in other instances rules associated with telephone slips and hand written messages are applied.

Alternatively these deviations may reflect the absence of secretarial mediation in this medium, weaker editing facilities or the lack of typing skills among users (Yates & Orlikowski, 1992). However, it is more likely that characteristics of the electronic medium interact with organisational norms in an adaptive process to achieve organisational and individual goals (Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990). Therefore e-mail is not a substitute for the memo but a complementary communication tool that facilitates new forms of organisational communication. For example, Markus & Robey (1988) in a study of e-mail usage found a convention she calls mosaic messages resulting from appending responses to received messages to create continuity and a conversational context. This suggests that when people use e-mail to communicate they do not simply send messages as electronically linked senders and receivers but (Ngwenyama & Lee, 1997) "perform social acts in action situations that are normatively regulated by, and already have meaning within, the organizational context." E-mail is a social medium as well as a technical tool.

Further examples of e-mail effects in organisations are provided in this section. First, MacGregor, Lee & Safayeni (1996) found that different patterns of e-mail usage may have exacerbated frictions between independent roles and that the origins of the problems they observed were not technical but part of a "pre-existing social system of interconnected role relationships." In a study of e-mail usage and R&D performance, Rice (1994) found that it is not necessarily how much a person uses an e-mail system but how the users are positioned in that systems structural context that effects individual performance. Herring (1993) in a study of gender participation in academic electronic discussion lists found that academic computer-mediated communication was power-based and hierarchical, and that this finding cannot be attributed to the influence of technology but continues "pre-existing patterns of hierarchy and male dominance in academia more generally, and in society as a whole." Finally, Ku (1996) found younger organisational employees in lower-level jobs that had worked in an organisation for a shorter period of time were more likely to communicate socio-emotional content via electronic messages. These are examples of second level media effects (Sproull & Kiesler, 1992), those that come about because "new communication technology lead people to pay attention to different things, have contact with different people and depend on each other differently". Furthermore, these examples suggest, as Markus (1994) found, that social processes can shape the adoption, use and consequences of communication media in organisations and these processes can result in differences across organisations and other social units in patterns of use.

Looking Ahead at E-mail and Organisations

It is easier to look back at the past and interpret it in the present, than to look at the present and predict the future, however, in this section predictions regarding e-mail development in organisations are attempted. Bikson & Law (1993) found that as the volume of e-mail increases better tools for the management of e-mail messages are required. The examples cited previously, intelligent software agents to assist management of incoming e-mail traffic and the composition of messages, indicate system designers are developing these tools. Smart software that can mimic a postal delivery system and a tool to manipulate or navigate message threads have also been suggested in this paper. These developments represent Sproull & Kiesler (1992) first level effects, where anticipated technical developments effect planned efficiency or productivity gains that justify investment in new communication technology. However, Orlikowski & Yates (1994) found approaches that concentrate on media characteristics may be less useful for certain purposes than those that focus on communicative practices. Examples of the effects upon organisational communications from previous technological advancements, and the studies of organisational effects of e-mail cited in this paper further suggest that a technologically determinist perspective is limiting when predicting the effects of new technologies. To isolate the technology from its social context ignores broader effects and non-technical influences. It may be necessary to look beyond efficiency and productivity gains to suggest second level leverage, behavioural and organisational changes (Sproull & Kiesler, 1992), as the e-mail communication issue for organisations in the future.

The suggestion offered here is that it may be more useful to propose organisational modifications that effectively use e-mail in achieving organisational goals, rather than predict technological developments in e-mail. The difficulty here is generalising across organisations as computer-mediated communications are deeply situated, the social and technological contexts being "always highly specific" (Mantovani, 1994). Each organisation, and indeed sub-units within organisations, operate in a distinct communication context governed, not only by organisational goals but individual goals and actions. Therefore it is suggested that organisational designers, or managers, need to understand the communication activities and social processes within these units when introducing technological advancements in e-mail. Or as Lee (1994) has simply put it, the challenge is for the systems professionals to treat the user of an e-mail system "not merely as a customer or client of information services, but also as a processor or co-processor to be integrated into the system design."


With the continuing expansion of global telecommunications networks further advances can be expected in electronic links for organisations. By the 21st century e-mail will be a pervasive communication medium in organisations, one that will complement a number of communication channels including the telephone, with expanded functionality, paper based communication tools and the familiar face to face exchange to name three existing channels. Systems designers, and managers, need to understand how existing communication activities and social processes, utilising all available organisational communication channels will be affected with the technical enhancement or adoption of new communication channels including e-mail. Understanding these effects will enable designers to mitigate possible negative consequences and ensure benefits for the organisation are rapidly obtained. The organisational e-mail issue for the future is not technology specific, it is how to integrate all organisational communication channels to best effect.

About the Author

Eric Williams is a postgraduate student studying communication studies at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His research interests include computer-mediated communications in organisations. He can be contacted at


1. For further details regarding intelligent agents the research efforts of the Software Agents Group at MIT's Media Lab are available online at


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