Study Methodology

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As a social researcher, I draw upon constructivist/interpretative (sometimes

termed naturalistic) traditions and this qualitative research is based on an

empirical research methodology: a single case study within a framework of

ethnographic and grounded theory principles. It is interdisciplinary in that it

transcends several different disciplinary borders; for instance, that of sociology,

applied communication, organisational behaviour, and management studies

as well as information technology.

The research was undertaken between 1995 and 2000 with the aim of

deepening our understanding of the social world of organisational life as

interpreted and experienced by people who actually use email daily in their

interactive communications at work. The study involved 33 people employed

by a large Australian organisation (identified through the pseudonym, Station

99). While a range of significant themes emerged, this story focuses specifically

on only one of them, that is, the new insights that arose around the study of

participants’ construction of the distribution and copying functions of email.

Vivid contextual detail quoted from their ethnographic conversations enriches

the story. These semi-structured interviews ranged from 30 minutes to over two

hours while the demographics of those who participated in the study encompass

a diverse mix of ages, gender and occupational roles. I identify the participants

whose words are quoted within my story. However, anonymity is preserved

through the use of fictitious names. All other information is true to life.

The story itself illustrates many characteristics of qualitative research traditions:

the ways that people use email within their daily activities at work are explored

through the single case study methodology while rich, detailed and thick

descriptions reveal the multiplicity of intertwined understandings of the meanings

associated with email.

At this point, you may be interested in reading my first reflective journal

extract in the endnotes for a glimpse of my deliberations about the form

of my story’s content: deliberations which traditionally remain unspoken

and hence, invisible.1

In addition, the story-telling writing style draws on emerging genres of scholarly

discourse as an alternative to the structure and expression of traditional

information technology/information systems research. In telling this story, I

have deliberately drawn in elements from these newer techniques particularly

through the rhetorical strategy of writing in the first person and also by using an

atypical structure (compared to the more universally accepted structure and

design of traditional research reports).

However in many respects, my story illustrates that email has already become

taken for granted in organisations today. Reporting the research results in a

non-traditional format similarly encourages an introspective focus on what we

take for granted in the knowledge creation process. Research writing that

departs from traditional forms can be construed as challenging, provocative

and creative, while for others it may be perceived as being distracting; it may

simply be misunderstood or even actually dismissed as having little to no

intellectual value. However, the presence of my ethnographic story as a

contributing chapter to a book exploring what an interactive society might be

like indicates spaces are emerging for different ways of looking at, and talking

about, technology as a part of such a society.

Message Webs

As briefly mentioned before, I have constructed the term “message web” to

describe an electronic communication network within an organisation but it is

also more than that — it captures the coming together of social and technological

concepts within evolving forms of organisational communication.

The term itself has tendrils that connect it to several scholarly communities, for

instance, psychology, organisational behaviour and computing. Petzinger quoted

Abraham Maslow (a psychologist who pioneered the concept of motivation as

a hierarchy of needs that culminated in self-actualisation) who, in 1962,

described a holistic business as “a business in which everything is related to

everything else. Not like a chain of links of causes and effects, but rather a

spiderweb, or geodesic dome, in which every part is related to every other part”

(McKelvey et al., 1999, p. 75).

The term “message web” also borrows from concepts associated with Gestalt

psychology in that the social relationships within a message web can be

perceived as the figure, with the technology providing the ground it appears

against. The descriptive power of the message web concept is derived from the

notion of fluid, dynamic and complex social interactions in combination with the

deterministic nature of computer network environments. It focuses a spotlight

(in a holistic sense) on the communicative interactions among people in

organisations against a background of the technological machinery that maintains

electronic messages in motion.

Figure 1 is a visual representation of a message web that can be viewed as

comprising technology that progress in a lineal sense (the line) while human and

social activities spiral around the technology (the circles). Both the technology

and the social activities are situated within the context of an organisation.

Technology (the line) can be seen to be rather straightforward, while people’s

behaviours (the spirals) tend to be more creative, troublesome, attention

demanding, time consuming, vibrant and complex.

This concept of an organisational message web also links into information

systems thinking around socio-technical systems design: Kling & Scacchi’s

1982 “web of computing” and the more recent ideas of Kling, McKim & King’s

“socio-technical interaction networks” (2003).

Evolutionary forces driving towards more virtual forms of organisation where

the emphasis is on flexibility, trust and open relationships are challenging

traditional organisations with multilevel hierarchies that are bound by bureaucratic

notions of structure and controlled by rules. Message webs make use of

communication technologies to stimulate the diffusion of information, knowledge

and understandings throughout the organisation on an organic rather than

a mechanistic level.

Figure 1. An organisational message web

One way of explaining these changes in organisational forms in relation to

computer-mediated communication involves the notion that social activities

and ways of thinking associated with email (sometimes defined as email cultures

being sub-cultures of the organisation’s predominant culture) are diverse,

complex and constantly evolving. And as such, these email cultures play a

defining role (especially around social norms) within the message web as it is

continually being shaped through varying degrees of trust, openness and

flexibility of both the organisation and its members.

In my exploration of Station 99’s email cultures, Schein’s (1985) three-level

approach to organisational culture was also relevant to the message web

concept. His first level (surface), which concerned the visible artefacts of

culture, can be linked to the technology itself, while his second and third levels

can be applied to the more abstract notions of applied strategies (second level)

and the taken for granted beliefs and values (third and final level) underlying

social action. Hence, Schein’s work on organisational culture provides another

position from which to reflect on the line and the circles of the message web.

However, it is important to note that by bringing this concept of a message web

into focus in these ways, other views automatically move out of focus. For while

I am using the message web concept to extend and amplify understandings

about specific facets of email use in organisations, other dimensions of these

experiences are consequently reduced at the same time. For instance, the actual

content of the emails in Station 99’s message web was considered to be outside

the scope of the study as was an in-depth exploration of such things as the

frequency and duration of individual email use.

Transmission[s] and Transmitting

Many of the study participants drew together multiple perspectives that

centered on email as a message transmission system. The metaphor “email as

a tool” seemed to encapsulate many of their overall understandings and

descriptions of email with some linkages to knowledge management. The

widespread use of a tool metaphor to describe email denotes a certain way of

thinking and a way of seeing (Morgan, 1997, p. 4). In this case, it appears as

though participants perceived email communication primarily as a transmission

process with the emphasis centred on moving messages around.

Electronic mail systems provide a multiple addressability facility that allows a

single message to be sent to numerous recipients. This feature is reshaping the

accepted notion that business documents are addressed to a single recipient

with others receiving a copy for their information via a Cc process.

It has been accepted practice to send duplicate copies of business documents

to people other than the primary recipient since the invention of carbon paper

in the latter part of the 19th century. Over time, it became customary to use the

notation Cc (an abbreviation of the words, carbon copy) to indicate that the

document has been copied to others.