E-mail research in organisations has tended to focus on the behaviour of the e-mail sender rather than recipient. A recent study examined the influences acting upon a recipient's interpretation of e-mail messages in an organisation. From this examination study findings and the implications of two developments in e-mail technology, intelligent software agents and integrated messaging, are discussed in this paper.
E-mail research in organisations has tended to focus on the behaviour of the e-mail sender rather than recipient, an oversight noted by several authors (Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990; Sitken et al., 1992; Mantovani, 1994). Research from the recipient perspective has concentrated on the effects of information overload (Finholt & Sproull, 1990; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991) and the ability of the sender to influence or persuade the recipient (Matheson & Zanna, 1989; Mantovani, 1994). Using a phenomenological approach where the concern is, "understanding human behaviour from the participants frame of reference." (Hussey & Hussey, 1997; 52), a study examined the common influences acting upon a recipient's interpretation of e-mail messages in an organisation. From this examination study findings and the implications of two future developments in e-mail technology, intelligent software agents and integrated messaging, are discussed.
Previous studies have found that "user evaluations of the information they receive may be influenced by perceptions or expectations of the sender" (Matheson & Zanna, 1989; 109), and that social cues play a strong role in computer communications. Markus (1994) has suggested that, as timeliness of response is not a media characteristic, receiver behaviour in electronic messaging is critical. Lee (1994) found that e-mail recipients were not passive receivers, but active producers of meaning who, through interaction with an e-mail system, transform data into meaningful information. Lee also comments upon how users of an e-mail system join the hardware and software as co-processors of data. Tao (1997) has investigated the strategies used by e-mail recipients when reading online messages. While Ngwenyama and Lee (1997) suggest that people do not send messages as electronically linked senders and receivers, but perform social acts in normatively regulated situations that already have meaning within an organisational context.
In adopting a phenomenological approach, the researcher has a personal interest in the topic. As Van Manen (1990; 40) states, "The starting point of phenomenological research is largely a matter of identifying what it is that deeply interests you and me and of identifying this interest as a true phenomenon, that is, as some experience that human beings live with". E-mail is a phenomenon increasingly used as a communications tool by individuals and organisations.
The organisation participating in this study was the local office of a national solutions provider located in Wellington, New Zealand. The organisation has more than 100 personnel across a range of departments. The e-mail system used is Microsoft Outlook. The organisation has utilised e-mail since 1990, and operates a documented e-mail policy that covers e-mail usage, the use of attachments, governs personal use of e-mail and includes the organisation's right to monitor e-mail traffic.
As Leedy (1997) states, the phenomenological approach to research typically involves five to 10 people and depends almost exclusively on in-depth interviewing. Therefore, using Patton's (1990) simple random sample method, a study group of 10 employees from across the organisational structure was formed. Experience of e-mail within this group ranged from three months to 10 years of e-mail use. On average members of the sample group had been using e-mail as a communications medium for five years and, according to participants they received an average of 23 messages per day.
Study participants were asked to provide a copy of a recent e-mail message. This message was to be a task-related message type, from an individual within the organisation and recently received by the study participant. Task-related messages are defined as, those e-mail messages used to facilitate task-oriented activity. This e-mail message provided the basis of a semi-structured interview where the e-mail recipient's interpretation of the message was discussed.Steinfield (1985; 1986) identified two dimensions of purposes of e-mail use, task related use such as coordinating project activities, scheduling meetings, and socio-emotional use (taking a break from work, keeping in touch). Sproull and Kiesler (1986) similarly found e-mail was used for socially oriented communication as well as task applications. Steinfield (1985) also found the most frequent use of e-mail was for task-related information exchanges. A recent study (Kettinger & Grover, 1997) found that e-mail broadcast usage through public bulletin boards, electronic discussion groups and list servers the most frequent use of interorganisational e-mail. Therefore, as task-related messages have been found to be a frequent usage type in organisations it was considered more effective to use this message type in achieving study purpose.
Study results detail findings from the perspective of the e-mail recipient, the principal focus of this study, and the organisational perspective. Although the latter perspective is not the primary purpose of the study it draws on the findings and identifies implications for the organisation participating in this study.
Findings are organised to reflect the constructs of study participants by using their own words, while recognising some interpretation is involved. This interpretation involved identifying categories and, within these categories, further identifying patterns and themes. It is from these themes that an interpretation of the findings can be made. The difficulty for the researcher here lies in using the individual level of analysis. As Fulk et al. (1991; 16) states, "Individuals differ in their use of CMC systems." and, "they also have different experiences with CMC." [ 1]
Two of the main themes identified were the concept of message threading and the influence of the message type. Implied in the message type are the message sender and the wider business context of the message. This context and the organisational role of the recipient represent two further themes. In initial message interpretation, header information has some relevance.
The Recipient Perspective
Rudy (1996; 207) defines a thread as "a collection of messages with a common subject", while Lewis and Knowles (1997; 209) describe threads as "conversations among two or more people carried out by the exchange of messages.". The definition of a thread as a collection of "e-mail" messages results in four of the 10 messages discussed in this study being classified as part of a thread. However, as neither of the two definitions refers specifically to e-mail messages the finding here is that nine of the 10 messages involve some form of message threading that incorporates e-mail and non-e-mail "messages". Non-e-mail messages are prior conversations or discussions, whether face-to-face or via telephone, and includes business processes and procedures, both formal and informal.
For example, a message that consisted of the question "Does this ring any bells?" was the final message in a thread. By reading through earlier text that constituted the e-mail thread the recipient constructed the meaning of the e-mail received. This construction included a face-to-face conversation that occurred with a third party before the e-mail message was received. By bringing together the mail thread and an earlier discussion the study participant not only interpreted the e-mail, but also resolved the task implied in the original message before responding to the e-mail sender and third party.
Another e-mail message was the extension of a previous conversation after, "a casual bumping into each other sort of thing", where the e-mail sender and recipient discussed the study participants current workload and allocated new tasks. The e-mail message further clarified and confirmed the initial discussion.
An e-mail message received by a middle management representative produced interesting comments. According to the participant, upon receiving the message their first thoughts were, "here we go again another message on the same subject. Right, because I've had a lot of messages about this particular subject". Then before opening and reading the full text of the message the study participant actually discussed the message with a subordinate. As the interviewee stated,"Before opening the message, which is probably quite interesting, I asked someone that works for me, [X], right have you dealt with this yet. So I hadn't opened it and, this is interesting actually when you think about it, I hadn't opened it, I second-guessed what was there and I was actually correct in my guess."
Furthermore, after reading the message he stated,"I spoke to a guy about it yesterday. So the information that I have here I already knew and he's actually, there's nothing for me to do on this e-mail, it was done. It was basically done yesterday. I opened it and hey, it's a nothing e-mail."
In this example, the message was a part of an ongoing discussion or information exchange, and also confirmation of a prior telephone conversation. The participant's action in asking a fellow employee to assist message interpretation is a further example of threading.
When attempting to discuss e-mail messages within an e-mail thread, study participants were reluctant to focus on a single message within a thread. As one participant stated when asked about his attitude towards a particular message within in a thread, "Um, well this is where maybe we should actually concentrate on this e-mail" and proceeded to discuss the contents of a separate message. Finally, an individual when asked if they had any further comments regarding the message stated, "It started out with one thing and sort of progressed to some where else", and when discussing the message concerned, interpreted the whole thread rather than a single message.
The concept of threading suggests that e-mail messages are part of wider communications web. E-mail is simply a message carrier, the e-mail recipient is not a passive receiver of electronic text but an active producer of meaning (Lee, 1994) who combines the received e-mail message with other, non e-mail, sources of information within the organisation.
The Message Type
Using the message types detailed in table 1, nine of the 10 messages discussed in this study were task-related messages. Although this was expected given the purpose of the study, this phenomenon provides useful insights. Eight messages were "routine use" including information exchange, one e-mail was a "complex use", negotiating and bargaining, message. The final message was a bulletin board or broadcast message. However, although defined as a broadcast message the subject of the message was related to "routine use".
Table 1: Message Types
Source: Ku (1996).
Message Type Sub Group Example 1. Task Related Routine Use Information exchange Complex Use Negotiating 2. Socio Emotional Keeping in touch 3. Bulletin board Broadcast information requests
The type of e-mail message received influenced recipient interpretation of e-mail and any subsequent actions in response to the message by restricting the type of information available to the e-mail recipient.
Several of the "routine use" messages were task or information requests. Although tasks were explicit in some messages e.g. meeting requests, in several messages the task was implied in the e-mail message and triggered a response that was in line with sender intention. Examples included a request for documentation, which was immediately actioned, and the announcement of an amended business process, which was forwarded to relevant personnel and filed for future reference.
Two messages were a reminder of allocated work tasks, and the allocation of a task. Both resulted in the individuals contacting a third party and confirming the allotted tasks. According to the recipient of the task reminder message, "it was information that I required to know and it's now been processed." The message regarding task allocation was the result of previous conversation after at the conclusion of which, "she said I'll send you an e-mail with more information and that's what she's done." These examples suggest that the recipient interpretation of "routine use" e-mail messages were a result of the recipient's understanding of business processes or the task required.
The broadcast message, the subject of which was task related, was interpreted in a similar fashion. The message related to a business process, the recipient understood that process. However, the recipient did not believe that the message was relevant to her and stated, "I really think this message was probably intended for people where sort of admin is not high on the priority, or following procedures is probably not high on their priority." This was in agreement with the intention of the sender of the message who was directing the message at a specific group, but used a general organisational wide mailing list.
The example of a "complex use" message supports findings that this message type is used more often at the upper levels of organisations, the e-mail recipient was an executive, the sender a senior manager. This e-mail message was included in a thread of nine messages over a period of one month involving negotiation of an internal pricing mechanism that culminated in a face-to-face meeting at which the issue was resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.
The message type influences recipient interpretation of e-mail messages by restricting the type of information conveyed. Task-related e-mail messages are a form of information exchange used in organisations to facilitate organisational tasks, therefore the message is restricted to information needed to achieve these tasks.
The message type and threading of messages contributes to the theme of contextualism. The text-based electronic message merges with threads of conversations, inherent organisational knowledge of business processes and people to create an overall message through the processing of information by the e-mail recipient within the organisation. This is supported by previous studies that have found that the effects of technology are dependent on the culture and policies of an organisation (Erlich, 1987; Perin, 1991), and that within organisations groups create distinctive, shared meanings that structure individuals perceptions of themselves, their group, the nature of their work and their environment (Fulk, 1991).
Therefore, a particular e-mail message can only be interpreted by an individual within a certain context. This context comprises a number of factors. A generous term that could be used here is the organisational environment, however, this needs to be reduced to visible factors including the nature of the task or the particular business process, the role of the e-mail recipient and their relationship to the message sender. A common theme that arose was that of the e-mail recipient's position or role.
The Recipient's Organisational Role
The recipient's role, or the perception of their role in the organisation influences message interpretation. This influence is reflected in the recipient's attitude towards specific messages. These attitudes in turn raise further questions best answered from within the organisation, but none the less provide some insights into how e-mail recipients interpret electronic messages. The finding is that the recipient's role and relationship to that of the sender influences message interpretation. Some examples include,
"I will research the background information that I need to respond to it. However, the monkeys been passed to me so to speak, and its not really my job to do that.""I didn't want to do it because its involving an area that I'm not familiar with but they assumed that I was and so. My attitude to it at the time wasn't happy. But I decided I could do it anyway obviously because I got given the information to do it and so I have to.""In theory I'm at a GM level and he's at a line manager level ... I was dealing, in this particular situation, I was dealing with him at a peer type level."
The initial two quotations indicate how a recipient's perception of their role influences their interpretation. The last example indicates how an e-mail recipient adopts a position to interpret a message. Furthermore, in discussions with the study participant he stated, "there was two responses I could have made." By adopting the role of a peer, one response becomes the obvious action to take.
Message Header Information
Message header information refers to the standard information displayed in a recipient's e-mail in-box. This includes the message subject, message priority, message sender and when the message was received. This information is used in recipient interpretation however, its relevance is being reduced by functional innovations in e-mail technology such as Microsoft Outlook's auto message preview function.
The Subject Line
Comments by study participants such as, "what is in the subject is very important. It's a bit like, it's almost like the executive summary in terms of a proposal", indicate that some importance is attached to the use of the subject line and, that it is useful in interpreting the content of an e-mail message. The comment that, "she told me basically in the header what it was going to be about.", is an example of how the subject line can be used effectively. However, the study participant later commented, "Once you've read it a couple of times you got what the meaning was", which appears to conflict with the initial statement.
A participant stated that, "and the subject was in capital letters,". To her this indicated that the sender was annoyed, and indeed according to the e-mail sender they were annoyed. The use of capital letters in the subject line was a means of transmitting this attitude. Finally, the comment that, "here we go again another message on the same subject", indicates that over time an individual constructs meaning from the subject line.
The use of the optional auto preview functionality in Microsoft Outlook appears to reduce the importance, and usefulness of the subject line. Using the auto preview function e-mail recipients are able to read the initial few lines of an e-mail message, as well as message header information in their in-box, before opening the message and reading the full message text.
Study participants stated,"when my messages come in, they come in with an auto, with three lines of the message displayed. So I could basically, I basically was able to see most of the message in my in-box.",
and"also perhaps Outlook, because you can see a little bit more that just the subject line, allows you to come to that conclusion without actually reading it.",
indicating subject line details are often ignored when this e-mail feature is utilised.
In the initial interpretation of e-mail messages, that is when reading the message header information available in their in-box, not all participants indicated they were aware of the message sender. However, when reading the full message text the relationship between the message sender and recipient appears to be more accentuated, and therefore taken into consideration when interpreting e-mail messages. This observation supports the assumption of Matheson and Zanna (1989) that perceptions or expectations of the sender may influence user evaluations of the information they receive.
Study participants in administration roles, who classified themselves in the middle to lower organisational levels and were all females, volunteered the sender as important in initial message interpretation. Comments included,"I look at who it's from first, and that really determines whether or not I read it straight away.""because I can see who it was from, which everyone obviously can, I knew that it was really going to be quite important because she's the [X] manager""If it's from someone in my immediate area then I'm not too worried about it, because if it was urgent they would have come up and talked to me anyway."
A comment by one participant that, "I actually thought that, I can hear the person", reflected the "friendly relationship" between the sender and receiver. While comments that, "knowing the individual that sent the message and knowing his work ethos is, my attitude to the message is one of laissez fare" and, "She can be a little bit abrupt but she knows that" suggest a differing relationship.
This finding, that perceptions or expectations of the sender influences recipient e-mail interpretation, is similar to the finding outlined in the previous section, that the e-mail recipient's role and their relationship to the e-mail sender influences message interpretation. The difference here is a greater emphasis on the sender and their relationship to the recipient, rather than the recipient's organisational role.
Microsoft Outlook e-mail package allows an e-mail sender to mark an e-mail message as high or low priority by using an icon. When the e-mail recipient receives the message in their in-box this icon indicates the priority assigned to the message by the sender. Two of the study participants indicated they observed this phenomenon. One participant stated, "also the urgency of the e-mail. So if it's got a little flag next to it, obviously I'll read those ones first." While the second individual stated that "the importance was high" in the message under discussion, however, this does not necessarily indicate that the phenomenon was observed previously.
Although priority icons are utilised by recipients in their interpretation of e-mail messages, its usefulness is difficult to comment on within the limitations of this study. However, it would appear that this feature benefits the message sender rather than recipient.
From research studies come observations that provoke some interest, but do not seem to fall into a suitable category and as such are classified as other. In this study, two such observations were the use of an emoticon as a form of non-verbal communication and, secondly, comments observed regarding the volume of e-mail messages received.
Emoticons - Visual Cues
There were no messages that used emoticons, defined here as visual cues formed from ordinary typographical symbols that when read sideways represent feelings or emotions. (Walther & Burgoon, 1992). However, in the thread of one message a smiley figure was produced using key mapping. This generated a social response in the actual message discussed in this study, "He's giving me a hard time because I did a computer smile at him, which I've never done before." This example supports the social information processing approach of Walther (1992; Walther et al., 1994) that asserts e-mail relationships develop over time, similar to those that develop in other communication channels.
A study participant made the comment, I mean we get so many volumes of e-mail that do come through you can't keep all of them". This reflects the perceived volume of e-mail traffic within the organisation. Two similar comments were, "I think the sheer quantity of e-mail is, effects how you interpret messages" and, "it's a major problem within our organisation is that e-mail is the pervasive communication mechanism." The suggestion here is that the volume of e-mail traffic somehow influences the interpretation of messages. What this influence or effect is, is not readily apparent in this study.
According to study participants, they received between 10 and 40 messages per day. The average number of messages received per day was 23. Whether this figures represent an excessive volume, or not, is certainly subjective, but from the perspective of study participants this volume is significant. Furthermore, this figure needs to be compared with other communications media, and considered within the whole organisational communications context to further understand its significance.
The Organisational Perspective
From the organisational perspective the question asked is whether an e-mail recipient's interpretation of an e-mail message is an effective process, and therefore is e-mail an effective medium within the organisation. The conclusion drawn is that recipient interpretation of e-mail messages is an effective process. No e-mail messages discussed in this study produced undesirable results, that is results not expected by the e-mail sender, although not all messages achieved the intended outcome. From the recipient's perspective messages were interpreted within their (the participants) context and actioned satisfactorily from that frame of reference. However, this may reflect the message types reviewed and the pervasiveness of the medium.
The organisation operates an e-mail policy that provides the guidelines, "Write a subject line that clearly states what the e-mail is about" and, "Send one e-mail per subject". Examples from this study suggest that this guideline is loosely adhered to. The use of Microsoft Outlook auto preview functionality appears to reduce the importance of the subject line, and assists e-mail recipients in their initial interpretation of message text.
Findings regarding e-mail volume identify an area of concern for the organisation. However, of the 10 individuals surveyed five considered e-mail essential to their work compared with other communications media, four classified e-mail as somewhat essential while the remaining participant viewed e-mail as not essential in their role. Furthermore in terms of familiarity with e-mail a lone individual stated, "I know how to send and receive and that's about it", and considered themselves unfamiliar with e-mail functions. The participant had been with the organisation for approximately three months. Therefore the inference can be drawn that while e-mail volume is high, this reflects the nature of individual roles in the organisation, and that individuals have the necessary skills to process this volume.
Is e-mail an effective medium? The conclusion drawn from the actions and responses of e-mail recipients reviewed in this study is a tentative yes. The concept of threading with external sources suggests that e-mail is integrated component of the organisations communication system. However, two participants when asked if e-mail was an effective medium for the particular message discussed, although the outcomes were as expected, did not agree that e-mail was an effective medium for that message.
Summary of Findings
Two main themes were identified in study findings. Firstly, the concept of message threading between e-mail and non-e-mail messages, including prior conversations or discussions, business processes and procedures. Threading is the practice of combining groups of similar messages to enable a particular message to be interpreted.
The second theme is the influence of the message type on recipient interpretation. In task related e-mail message types the information provided is restricted to a certain context which assists in message interpretation within an organisation. Further investigation of recipient interpretation of socio-emotional e-mail messages in a similar context is necessary to fully understand the influence of message type on recipient interpretation.
The recipient's role within the organisation influenced message interpretation, and was manifest in participant attitudes towards messages. Examples of task delegations in this study suggest that it is the recipient's organisational relationship to the sender that assists in message interpretation rather than the recipient's actual role. Furthermore, recipient perceptions and expectations of the message sender influences message interpretation.
In the initial interpretation of e-mail messages, message header information is considered important. This information includes the subject line and sender details. However, in routine task related messages the importance of the message header was quickly discarded as the nature of the task was constructed. Functional innovations in e-mail such as auto preview are reducing the importance of the subject line in the message header.
From the organisational perspective the conclusion drawn from the actions and responses of e-mail recipients interviewed in this study is that e-mail is an effective communications medium. However, this may reflect the type of e-mail message studied and the pervasiveness of the medium. Furthermore, the concept of threading with external sources suggests that e-mail is an integrated component of the organisations communications system.
E-mail volume is identified as an area of concern for the organisation although it is recognised that this is a subjective measure. The inference is drawn in study findings that while e-mail volume is high, this reflects the nature of individual roles in the organisation and individuals have the skills to manage this volume. The experiences of a single study participant whom had little prior experience of e-mail suggest that some form of e-mail training would allow individuals to integrate more effectively with the organisational communication system. Similarly, an adherence to, and monitoring of, the organisations e-mail policy may further allow individuals to communicate effectively using e-mail within the organisation. This assumes the policy details efficient use of the message header, and when e-mail is an appropriate communication medium.
In discussing the implications of future developments in e-mail technology, two specific technological developments are considered: firstly, intelligent agents, that is autonomous software agents that perform local tasks and interact with each other and with users (Muller, 1996); secondly integrated messaging, which will allow users to access all digital messages, including e-mail and voice mail, through a single interface.
Intelligent software agents learn from users as they handle their e-mail. As a user performs actions the agent memorises situation-action pairs and tries to predict the user action(s) in similar situations. These agents gain competence by observing the user and acquiring more examples, although it is possible to instruct the agent explicitly. Intelligent software agents will alter human-computer interaction as users delegate tasks to agents acting on their behalf (Maes, 1994), assist in managing e-mail volume, empower users by giving them control over everyday tasks necessary for organisational functions and allow users to gain more value from existing data through less effort (Nardi et al., 1998). Furthermore, "agents will also provide new functions as people discover new uses for them" (Nardi et al., 1998: 103). Therefore, changes in e-mail recipient message behaviour can be expected. With users delegating tasks to personalised, intelligent software agents acting on their behalf, the e-mail recipient alters their relationship with the message sender, and thus some changes in message interpretation can be expected as an e-mail recipient's perceptions and expectations of the message sender influence their interpretation. Acting as a form of "digital" personal assistant, intelligent software agents alter the recipient's organisational relationship with the e-mail sender, which in turn influences interpretation of e-mail messages.
The emergence of the Internet as tool for organisational communications and development of standards such Voice Profile for Internet mail (VPIM), a computer server-to-server protocol designed to link disparate voice-mail systems over an IP network or the Internet (Elliot, 1997). It will allow users to access all digital messages through a single interface. Although a seemingly technical modification the migration to a unified messaging system will require changes in working practices and "can only work if they are part of the company culture" (Piggott, 1997; 32). One of the major issues for integrated messaging is how the end user will access these messages (Passmore, 1996). If the user interface is computer based then an increase in e-mail volume can be expected. According to Piggot (1997), integrated messaging will reduce the length of time taken to access and retrieve messages from separate messaging systems by reducing overall digital messaging traffic. This may reduce "electronic message threading", but the integrated nature of message threading in organisational communication flows suggests the phenomenon will remain.
While the implications of future developments discussed initially appear associated with managing e-mail volume, changes in organisational relationships and individual communication behaviour can be expected and this is likely to influence message interpretation. The challenge for e-mail recipients is to recognise where these developments fit into their communications environment, and how they can assist their organisational role. Organisations need to recognise that changes in e-mail technology create changes in individual behaviour and organisational relationships as the technology is adapted to accommodate user requirements. The threading of messages suggest that e-mail is part of an integrated organisational communications system, therefore these adaptations represent changes to communication flows within an organisation. The challenge for organisations is to manage this change.
The study discussed in this paper was an examination of how e-mail recipients construct meaning from electronic text within an organisation. In adopting a phenomenological research approach the examination sought to understand human behaviour from the study participant's perspective, but recognises that findings are an interpretation of the participants' construction.
The study focused on a single organisation and found that message interpretation involved the integration of e-mail, a communication tool, with threads of conversations, business processes and procedures by e-mail recipients to complete organisational tasks. Additional findings included the influence of the message type in restricting available information, the influence of the existing recipient-sender relationship and the organisational role of the e-mail recipient, and finally message header information. The concept of threading suggests that e-mail is integrated component of the organisations communication system. However, this effectiveness maybe related to the pervasiveness of e-mail within the organisation.
Future developments in e-mail technology discussed in this paper appear to address message volume rather than interpretation. However, the implication of these developments, for this and other organisations, is what effect they will have on e-mail recipient behaviour and their organisational relationships. For the e-mail recipient these effects are an adaptation to a changing communications environment. For the organisation, this adaptation represents a change in organisational communication flows. This change in communication behaviour, as previous studies of new technology in organisations have found (Culnan & Markus, 1987; Yates & Orlikowski, 1992), not only alter organisational communication flows, but also organisational structures.
About the Author
Eric Williams is a postgraduate student in Communication Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.
1. CMC refers to Computer-Mediated Communication.
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