Designing E-Mail for Knowledge Management in Distributed Organizations

Designing E-Mail for Knowledge Management in Distributed Organizations

Linda Leung (University of Technology Sydney, Australia), Tania Humphreys (University of Technology Sydney, Australia) and Alastair Weakley (University of Technology Sydney, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-874-1.ch003
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E-mail has become so ubiquitous that it has surpassed existing only as a tool of asynchronous communication. E-mail has contributed to the rise of the distributed organization that is widely dispersed across nodes and locations. Email is being used in diverse ways and for an increasing range of unintended purposes. This chapter charts the history of e-mail, from early investigations of handling e-mail overload, to a review of software applications designed to ameliorate unanticipated outcomes. It suggests that while e-mail has been appropriated for information and knowledge management, there has been minimal analysis of this beyond the individual. By presenting a case study of a distributed organization, detailing the process by which e-mail was leveraged for organizational knowledge through the design of an application that enabled visualization of e-mail data, this research shows e-mail technology can become a core repository of corporate knowledge.
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The academic literature on studies of e-mail fall into two main categories. The first is concerned with how volume of e-mail is managed in the context of “information overload” (Mackay, 1988, p. 344), to the extent that e-mail is now used peri-synchronously, or nearly synchronously, rather than just asynchronously (Tyler & Tang, 2003). Such studies largely relate to individuals and their approaches to and feelings about e-mail, rather than the role of e-mail within an organization and its business relationships. As early as 1996, Whittaker and Sidner (1996, p. 276) noted that “there is little systematic data on its usage and utility as a workplace technology”. Although much has since been written about personal strategies for archiving e-mails and using it to manage tasks in work settings (Mackay, 1988; Tyler & Tang, 2003; Whittaker & Sidner, 1996), there is scant research on the larger scale implications of using e-mail to manage and archive knowledge at an organizational level.

The second body of literature complements the first by attempting to address the problems identified in managing e-mail data through the development of software applications that enable alternative forms of information retrieval and visualization. These software applications share similar characteristics by seeking to represent aspects of e-mail interactions not as apparent in standard e-mail clients. The various ways in which this is done encompass: visualizing patterns of e-mail exchange over time (Viegas, Boyd, Nguyen, Potter & Donath, 2004; Yiu, Baecker, Silver & Long, 1997), visualizing patterns of e-mail exchange between people (Heer, 2004), clustering similar sets of messages (Nardi, Whittaker, Isaacs, Creech, Johnson & Hainsworth, 2002), clustering people (Donath, 1995) and enabling more powerful search and retrieval functions beyond what is available in standard e-mail clients (Fernanda, Golder & Donath, 2006).

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