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E-mail: Does It Need to Be Managed? Can it Be Managed?

PAM, Vol. 7 No. 2, (2002)

Although e-mail is the most commonly used application, very little
has been written concerning its impact on public organizations. This article
reviews the existing literature and outlines the major aspects of e-mail that
need the attention of public managers. Much of the existing literature has
taken place in laboratories and focused on issues such as “flaming” and
deindividuation and is not useful for learning how to manage e-mail in
everyday organizations. For example, there is very little evidence of
flaming in organizational e-mail. Another major body of literature has
explored the hypotheses of media richness theory (MRT) which views e-mail
as a “lean” medium compared with richer “face-to-face” (FTF)
communication. However, if people know one another well, they may be
able to read very much into e-mail and thus make it a richer medium. MRT
hypothesizes that managers will be more effective if they use the
appropriate medium for the action they want to take. But evidence from
the few studies that exist indicates that managers are now using e-mail for
even the most sensitive of communications. The distinguishing
characteristic of e-mail is that it creates a detailed digital record unlike
everyday FTF and phone communication. The existence of an unprotected
digital record has legal implications that are explored in the paper. The
paper also discusses how employees are now using e-mail strategically in
order to document actions and, sometimes, point the finger at other
employees whom they feel have not performed well. Some tentative
suggestions for managers are outlined for each of these issues.

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