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The email is mightier than the sword


24 August 2004

August 2004

Email, an indispensable communication tool in the contemporary workplace, is fast becoming an important political weapon in office power struggles, a Monash research study has found.

The study by Dr Susan Yell, head of communications at the Gippsland School of Humanities, Communications and Social Sciences, has identified a number of 'good' and 'bad' uses of email, including its growing role as a means of gaining or maintaining power.

Dr Yell interviewed white collar workers aged 30 to 65 from a range of levels and jobs in three organisations - a manufacturing company, a public service department and a university - asking a series of questions about email use and policies.

She then analysed the relationship between organisational policy responses to the problems of uncontrolled email practices such as spam and email 'wars', and users' adherence to these policies.

Her research showed employees are more influenced by their own codes of 'good email behaviour' than they are by an organisation's official policies. Most interviewees knew their organisation had an email policy, but were not very clear on what it did and did not allow.

"Email has been in widespread use in Australian workplaces for more than a decade, yet its effects on workplace communication are still being debated," Dr Yell said. "My research sought to explore one of the many apparent paradoxes of email - that it is seen and experienced as a space in which unruly communicative behaviour occurs, but also as a highly regulated space.

"I wanted to focus specifically on users' experiences of email in working life and on the ways in which it represented a space where the politics of social relations are played out."

Dr Yell's research revealed a number of unruly or 'bad' practices related to power struggles, including colleagues in the same room emailing each other to raise concerns or complaints - rather than speaking face to face - resulting in an email war.

Other examples included storing emails that showed the sender in a bad light as future ammunition against them, managers sending group emails blaming subordinates for mishaps without allowing them to present their defence to the whole group, and workers sending group emails to brag about their achievements.

"One instance involved a staff member emailing his work group to say he'd completed a job, which the interviewee interpreted as 'big-noting' himself," Dr Yell said. "Consequently, he replied with a sarcastic email, cc'ed to the group, asking 'what took him so long', in order to 'kick him off his peg'.

"These types of unruly email practices form part of routine power struggles within organisations and are not unique to email but merely exploit email's characteristics as a medium.

"The temptation to use email in this way for some appears irresistible, even when they have much to lose and little to gain."

Dr Yell said that despite the negatives, most interviewees were highly enthusiastic about the positive aspects of email.

"Even those who admitted they preferred the phone or face-to-face interaction heaped praise on email in regard to aspects such as the potential for speedy response, its cost-effectiveness, the ease of sending documents electronically and the opportunity it provides for working from home."