Distribution Lists

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The ability for participants to duplicate a single message to numerous recipients

emerged as a highly valued element of email’s functionality at Station 99.

“Without email, you’d pick up the phone. But what it means is that one call that

used to be made by phone unless it was a conference call, can be sent to, well,

it’s an endless list,” Craig explained. Ivan described how his staff would have

received the minutes of the group’s weekly meeting in the past. “Before we had

email, if, if that was done at all, it (the minutes) would have been typed up once

and it would have been left in a folder for people to have a look at, if they wanted

to have a look at it.”

My second journal extract is pertinent at this point. Turn to the endnotes

again to read my thoughts exploring my inclusion of long quotations into

the story.2

Vince was the only other participant who mentioned this older and more manual

method of delivering information and he explained that he still used the “old

fashioned way” in combination with the newer email system.

Vince’s mention of “a document of importance” in the context of his choice to

reject email as the most appropriate communication medium was significant in

that for him, information appeared to be less important simply as a result of

having arrived via the email system.

In addition, although Vince’s “old fashioned way” allowed him to choose the

order that the information is delivered to receivers, it also creates a potential

timing paradox in regard to the actual receipt of his “document of importance.”

Email systems transmit messages synchronously (that is, a copy of the email is

available in the inbox of everyone on the distribution list at the same time).

Conversely, Vince’s old-fashioned way means that significant time may have

elapsed before the last person on his list actually receives his note of special

interest (particularly if there are many people on his list and if they do not all

place the same high degree of importance on moving his message on). Thus,

Vince’s intention of impressing people with the message’s importance may not

result in that outcome and may actually have the opposite effect.

*VINCE. Sometimes I’ll simply send an email out to the managers or at

least, forward it on. With a note saying that this is of interest, perhaps you

can distribute this to your producers or senior producers of program areas.

Errr, sometimes if I want to make a special point, I’ll take it off the

electronic system and I will print it out and I’ll put a list of names which

personalises it as far as I’m concerned. And I put a list of names, say ten

people I want to see it, I’ll list their names in order, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8,

9, 10. Ask them to pass it on and errr, so that it eventually comes back to

Glenda for filing. That way I think I’m conveying particularly to those

people that I would like them to read it because it’s a special note of special

interest. So in that case, I’ve used the electronic messaging device to

receive it and print it.

*EILEEN. Emmm, as the source.

*VINCE. And then if you like, gone to a more personal method of

distributing it so, I think it’s really using it in a mixture of ways.

*EILEEN. Would you actually write the people’s names on there?

*VINCE. I handwrite them, usually, either on the document itself or on one

of those yellow stick-on pieces of paper. So, I find that a quite successful

way of making sure that people see things or do things ‘cause they are then

asked to convey it to the next reader and they usually sign it and pass it on.

So that’s an old fashioned way, takes a bit longer but it’s meant to, as I say,

impress on people that it’s a document of importance.

*EILEEN. Emmm and more personal too, you said.

*VINCE. And more personal, that’s right.

This incongruence between the sender’s intention and the outcome/s for the

receivers was not further explored in this study, however, it hints at intriguing

possibilities for future research directions.

Senders and Receivers

One method utilised in the analysis to probe the ways in which the people of

Station 99 considered distribution lists was to explore what they said from the

following two viewpoints.

• The perspective of the sender of the message

• The perspective of the receiver/s of the message

In his reflection on the methods used to produce and deliver the minutes of the

weekly meeting of his section, Ivan placed himself in the role of sender or

originator of the message. He spoke about how the minutes had been done in

the past and compared this to his current distribution method.

*IVAN. Some of the stuff that goes out, I think if we didn’t have email, I’m

just wondering how we would have done it in the past. [pause] It probably,

[pause] it could well be more, it’s certainly more detailed.

*EILEEN. Emmm, more information.

*IVAN. More information. Now, for example, sending out more information.

Now, for example, sending out the minutes of our weekly meeting, I

put that on email and follow up action if there is anything to follow up and

the minutes can be quite detailed and that gets distributed to everybody via

the email system.

From his tone, Ivan indicated that he believed his current strategy of using email

to distribute the minutes was more effective. However, as a receiver of team

meeting minutes, Marcus expressed a view in sharp contrast to Ivan when he

said, “at least, sometimes in the old days, we used to get photocopies of this.

But, you may just miss out if you’re not there or whatever. I used to read them,

now we don’t seem to get any of that.” Marcus seemed to regret the change in

the way the meeting minutes are now distributed.

Based on this example, Marcus’s view (as the receiver) appeared to conflict

with the picture given by Ivan as the sender. Later in the interview with Marcus,

he again gave the impression of being troubled when he explained that he did

not know how the names of individuals on distribution lists were put together.

“But, I wonder, if y’know, we seem to be on some lists of decisions but maybe

not on others … maybe we miss out on stuff.” He pondered about who decides

who the message recipients are to be.

Such differences in opinion would amplify the possibilities of incongruent

interpretations of the message content and thus become barriers to effective

communication. At a very basic level, these differences in outlook between the

two parties involved in the interaction (that is the sender and receiver) could be

portrayed as traditional management/operative positioning. However, current

trends in management practice, particularly in professional settings, indicate

that power and control are being distributed more widely throughout

organisations, for instance, through self-managed workgroups. Irrespective of

whether this decision-making power regarding access to information is a

centralised function (for instance, in a highly traditional, hierarchical

organisational structure) or whether it is distributed more widely through the

organisation, it must be strategically managed. Achieving successful information

transfer requires effective planning and control measures, not just at the

highest levels but also consistently throughout the organisation.

Doubts About the Message Recipient

Although the question of the identify of the person who actually read the

incoming message was not specifically explored during the fieldwork stage, it

emerged as significant through the data analysis. The study participants seemed

to generally assume that the person who read the message would be the same

person to whom it was sent. And this was reflected in Ivan’s comment, “most

people, who have got access to email, read their email.” As managers, Mike

said, “I normally read all my emails addressed to me” while Vince did the same

except for those times he was away from the office.

However, I discovered that everyone did not read their own messages at

Station 99 and it became evident that Owen knew (or suspected) this was the

case when he said that “the odd boss … don’t read their emails.” Glenda

confirmed this when she explained that SM (Station 99’s Senior Manager) did

not read messages sent to him. Instead, she dealt with them in her role as his

Personal Assistant. It was only on very rare occasions that he actually read

emails addressed to him directly off the computer screen, perceiving it as being

“a time waster,” Glenda said. And while this could be seen to represent a very

traditional workflow collaboration, it also links into Muller & Gruen’s work on

IBM’s CUE project that email can be “reinvented” as the object of collaboration

(2000) rather than a tool for collaboration.

Glenda screened all of SM’s incoming email messages, which, in itself, was

relatively unremarkable in that most Senior Managers have personnel who act

as gatekeepers to select the information and the people they personally interact

with. However, what was noteworthy was that many participants seemed to be

unaware this was occurring with SM’s email. Glenda even said, “a lot of staff

don’t know that I do SM’s email.” She went on, “I get them [SM’s incoming

email messages] and if I think that we can handle that without him worrying

about it. I won’t tell him.” She said that he personally sees only about a third

of the emails that are addressed to him.

Such a situation raised questions as to who knew that Glenda screened all of

SM’s incoming email messages and who did not. When staff send an email

message to SM, are they aware that he would only know about it if, and when,

Glenda deemed it to be appropriate?

While it seemed that all the management team knew Glenda screened SM’s

messages (albeit as tacit knowledge), my assumption was that many of the

operative staff who participated in the study did not. For instance, Faye

mentioned that she suspected that Glenda might screen all of SM’s messages

and Amanda told me she knew but only as a result of her providing relief in

Glenda’s position in the past.

Such silence or lack of awareness of this screening challenged fundamental and

taken for granted assumptions made by email message senders that the person

to whom they address the email will be the person to read it. At Station 99, it

was clear that this was not always the case with SM’s email. Covert deception

such as this on organisational knowledge places pressure on interactions

between management and staff particularly if, and when, they discover that such

screening occurs within their message web.

The implications of using officially sanctioned gatekeepers in such ways and

their impact on the social dynamics of email-based intraorganisational communication

still appear to be under-researched — a knowledge gap which also

presents significant possibilities for future communication research.

The Unknown Decision Maker

As the study continued at Station 99, my understandings of their email cultures

grew. While there was considerable discussion around distribution lists messages

generally, the more fundamental issue of universal access to the email

system itself was taken for granted by most participants.

Apparently some people at Station 99 had access to the information they

required but there were others who did not (the have-nots). I asked Cliff

whether people in the “have-not” category felt they missed information. “I

honestly don’t think they realise [they miss out],” he said.

Speaking from a more personal perspective, Edith reached a similar conclusion

when I asked her if she felt better informed because of email access. Her initial

response was that if she needed to know something and she didn’t have email,

she would simply have to go and ask. It was at this point that she seemed to

discover that there “might be things that I wouldn’t think of asking [about].”

For organisations such as Station 99 who rely on email as one of their major

internal communication vehicles, the invisibility of the person who is responsible

for decisions about information access becomes a barrier to the flow of

communication. But it is not only that the decision-maker is invisible. The

decision itself can also become invisible — you do not know what you do not


Mike also touched on this notion of an “unknown decision-maker” in regard to

who is (or who is not) on specific distribution lists but he took a different

perspective. He explained some of the difficulties inherent in maintaining

accurate lists. The example he gave focused on the fact that membership of

*MIKE. I’ve raised this with the people in … I mean, you have a situation

where you continue to get emails, which, with what I’d call, standard

distribution lists. [pause] And I mean, I’ve looked at them and I’ve got,

there are names on that, on that list of staff who sort of left the organisation

nine months. Now, what I’m saying is maybe it really doesn’t make a

terrible, a lot of difference but, as I say, you just wonder whether [pause].

I guess it’s only distribution lists … But, it seems to me that the system sort

of has, has a, generates an impetus of its own. And I don’t think enough time

is spent sort of trying to [pause] review it and, and, and cull out recipients

of emails who are no longer there.

individual groups fluctuated on both a permanent and short-term basis. People

resign or transfer to other departments; while in the short-term staff take leave

from work. Mike was concerned about what he saw as the system becoming

unruly and even generating a life of its own unless this invisible decisionmaker

implemented proper administrative controls.

Clearly, Mike was aware the interactions facilitated through email distribution

lists could become unruly. He highlighted the importance of list creators

consciously deciding who needs the information and then ensuring that the

message was only sent to those people. But there did not appear to be any

formalised procedure or process to ensure this happened at Station 99.

It is through experiences of email such as these (encompassing users’ attitudes

and expectations), that we define what Ducheneaut & Bellotti (2001) have

termed the “habitat where we now all live.” And, clearly, there are significant

implications for managers that I discuss in more detail towards the end of this

chapter. Vince also mentioned the issue of distribution list maintenance with him

providing an example that illustrated an opposing view to Marcus’s concerns.

*VINCE. There have been occasions when I’ve asked to be taken off the

list of regular stuff which I don’t want to get ... there are some items which

I get regularly which just appear and I delete them before I even read them.

Not very many but there are some stuff that I will do that. Occasionally I

will ask to be taken off a list because it’s a waste of time.

Vince’s problem is relatively simple to solve as he knows where the information

comes from — the decision-maker is not invisible — and all he had to do was

ask to be taken off the list. While both Vince and Marcus experienced problems

related to the receipt of messages, the actual difficulties themselves were

different. Marcus did not receive some messages but felt he should have the

opportunity to make his own choices. On the other hand, Vince as one of the

management group, made his own choices but he was still restricted by the

efficiency or otherwise of the list management process, echoing Mike’s point

about the need for proper administrative controls.

In terms of effective organisational communication, particularly as organisations

move from traditional hierarchies with bureaucratic structures to decentralising

the decision-making process and working in more virtual ways, the invisibility

of information access decisions is significant. Both Edith and Marcus drew

attention to it with Marcus actually commenting about taking such things for

granted, “that’s something that I’ve not really looked at.”

However, Marcus had discovered his own way of addressing the problem of

not being on specific distribution lists. He explained that their small section

shared a common printer with another group. Following up on the idea that he

and possibly others were missing information, he said, “I think there may be

things that we, which will interest us but we don’t see.” Then, in quite a

mischievous way, he explained that sometimes he sees a message on the printer

that interests him but as he was not included on the list, he did not get a copy

himself. “Sometimes I see email printed there and think, ohhh that’s interesting.

In fact, I read it, sometime pin it … on the wall [the noticeboard].” Marcus

provided a telling example of the imaginative ways that people find to sidestep

communication barriers in organisations and the ways that information is


In practical terms, decisions are continually being made concerning who should

have access to what information. One way these decisions are then enacted is

by the creation and use of email distribution lists to deliver electronic information

internally throughout the organisation’s message web. And it was the

decisions being made about distribution lists which appeared to be of considerable

interest and concern because the decision-maker was invisible to many.

Lack of awareness like this opens up dramatic possibilities of mismanagement

and abuse, for instance Schwartz’s (2003) study found that 396 work-hours

were wasted as a consequence of a cross-posting error. Again, important

implications for managers are discussed later in the chapter.

Cc-ing as a Strategic Act

We now move to a discussion of the findings associated with the second major

thread weaving through the research — Carey’s (1989) notion of communication

as being essentially fundamental acts of ritual which form the essential

lifeblood of human relationships. This study revealed that email has a pervasive

and transforming influence on the social interactions of people at work.

The act of copying email messages through the Cc-ing function moved into

prominence during the study. Initially, the Cc-ing theme appeared to have more

in common with Carey’s idea of communication as transmission. Martin

explained that email at Station 99 meant he communicated with more people.

“Because of all these copies, well, in a sense, at least somebody, I mean, say

you send a copy to six people, that’s communication. At least, they know

you’re there, that you’re interested in such and such and it’s a sort of


Kraut & Attewell (1997) claimed that this spillover effect of electronically

copying and forwarding documents could enhance organizational knowledge.

“In using electronic mail, it is easy to add additional readers” (p. 335). And so

it was at Station 99.

However, on reflection, it became clearer that the ways the Station 99

participants spoke of their behaviour with Cc-ing could be encapsulated more

successfully within Carey’s idea of communication as ritual. They were linking

multiple social interaction layers as a form of ritual communication into their

processes of Cc-ing email to others. However, as seen from Martin’s quote

above, both of Carey’s ideas of transmission and ritual were clearly evident in

many instances.