Connections: New Ways of Working in the Networked Organization
Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler
The MIT Press, 1991, 212 pages
$19.95 cover price, ISBN 0-262-19306-X
From the railroad to the automobile to the telephone, new technology always give rise to unpredicted social consequences. The railroad gave rise to urbanization; the automobile to suburban sprawl; the telephone, horror of all horrors, to "intrusive communication."
A fascinating book, Connections: New Ways of Working in the Networked Organization, explores the social consequences, both favorable and unfavorable, of electronic mail. Written by two social scientists, this book is a must read for anyone interested in the psychological/sociological dimension of telecommunications.
The opening remarks in the Introduction frame the central themes of the book. "[Telecommunications networks] do not simply cross space and time; they also can cross hierarchical and departmental barriers, change standard operating procedures, and reshape organizational norms. They can create entirely new options in organizational behavior and structure. How will these technologies influence and change organizations? Does a computer network make work groups more effective? ... What problems do these technologies alleviate --- and what problems do they create?"
In conducting their research the authors visited a handful of "well-established electronic communities" within corporations, universities, and the financial industry. In the past fifteen years electronic mail has become a standard mode of communications at most large companies. So it's to be expected that most of the discussion in this book focuses on e-mail in the workplace (rather than on telecommunications in general).
The opening chapter of the book compares how earlier technologies --- the railroad, the telephone, the typewriter --- brought with them significant changes in social interactions. For instance, the railroad allowed city workers the chance to live in the suburbs and commute, thereby creating a new social creature, the suburban family. Likewise, the typewriter greatly expanded the number of women in the work force (albeit in a non-liberating work role). And the telephone spawned such social wonders as teenage chat-sessions and telemarketing.
What intrigues the authors is how the nature of the medium can influence the content of the message. Electronic mail tends to resemble the spoken word far more than the written word. The medium itself seems to encourage frankness and openness.
Such frankness and openness can be both a good and bad thing: "Electronic messages are often startlingly blunt, and electronic discussions can escalate rapidly into name calling and epithets, behavior that computer buffs call 'flaming'." Within a company's e-mail network, people will send out public electronic notices in a "tone of voice" that they would never use for a printed memo. The authors explain that one explanation for this phenomenon is the perceived ephemerality of e-mail.
At another place in the book the authors explain how e-mail serves to both connect and buffer people from one another. How e-mail serves to connect requires little explanation. E-mail buffers people from one another by allowing people to read and respond to messages at their own convenience. Unlike the telephone, e-mail is a non-disruptive communications medium. But like the telephone, it can be instantaneously fast when needed.
Several pages of the book are devoted to analyzing how e-mail supplants the use of phone communication. Given the central role of phone communication in modern social and business practices, the authors could have devoted a little more attention to this topic. However, the bibliography cites several articles and books that probe this topic further. (See the JUICY SOUNDING REFERENCES at the end of this review.)
Yet another section of the book examines how e-mail can serve as a "broadcast" or "publishing" medium. E-mail messages can be sent to groups of people just as easily as to individuals. When technology makes it as convenient to broadcast your ideas to three hundred people as to one person, a whole new question arises in the mind of a message sender. "Should I send this message out broadly or narrowly?" There could be many instances when widespread "broadcasting" of a message or notice would do more harm than good. But identifying those instances is no easy matter.
On the other side of the coin, receiving and dealing with broadcast messages is no piece of cake either. If you receive 80 internal company messages a day in your e-mail mailbox, you need to have a system of sorting thru the essential private communications from the less essential public communications.
One creative solution to this problem has been set up at Tandem Computers. Tandem has set up an e-mail system that parallels the U.S. Mail system, with your incoming mail being already presorted into first-class, second-class, and third-class mail.
First class mail includes communications from your boss and close colleagues. Second class mail includes communications from people you don't deal with regularly or personally. And third class mail includes announcements of company social functions and the like. Taking a lesson from the disruptive effects of the telephone, Tandem's e-mail system only "delivers" second-class and third-class mail after 5 PM each day, so as not to provide any distractions from priority work-related communications.
Another solution to dealing with large volumes of incoming e-mail is to set up a "software filter," that will automatically sort the incoming mail into various folders. But knowing which folders to set up, and which mail to delegate to which folder, is a judgment call that could vex even Solomon. (Assuming Solomon used e-mail to solicit views on what to do with the baby problem on his hands.)
Other topics touched upon on this book include how e-mail can help break down rigid management structures. The technology itself is an "equalizing" force, since anyone can easily communicate with anyone in the company. In a larger sense, computer networks can be liberating on a political level as well: "In a democracy, people believe that everyone should be included on equal terms in communication; no one should be excluded from the free exchange of information.... New communication technology is surprisingly consistent with the Western image of democracy."
Communications lies at the core of our social, business, and political structure. Book such as this one help illuminate a facet of modern communications that is seldom examined in other places. This book provides a good overview and starting point for thinking about some of these issues. More detailed writing on some of these topics is sure to follow in the near future.
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