Electronic groups at work

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Citation: Tom Finholt, Lee S. Sproull (1990) Electronic groups at work. Organization Science (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Electronic groups at work
Tagged: Computer Science (RSS) CSCW (RSS), email (RSS), groups (RSS), teams (RSS), organization theory (RSS)


Finholt and Sproull set out to study electronic groups in an organizational context. Specifically, their work is a largely descriptive take on organizational use of group email with an eye toward characterizing electronic group activity and comparing electronic groups to theory of groups more generally to determine whether electronic groups exhibit the characteristics theorists have ascribed to more traditional forms of groups.

The paper opens with an theory review and a consideration of the the existing focus on research onto groups in organization in the context of electronic groups based around discussion lists. The background considers group attributes (e.g. member characteristics and criteria), group processes around interaction, influence attempts, identity maintenance, and organization consequences like performance. Finholt and Sproull focus on the first two in their analysis.

The basic research questions (and the follow-up analysis) are very broad:

  1. What is the nature and scope of discussion list activity within the study organization?
  2. Do discussion lists exhibit the fundamental social processes of groups?
  3. Do pure electronic groups exhibit (a) a higher degree of interaction than do augmenting ones (b) more influence attempts (c) more identity maintainence (d) larger size (e) more geographic dispersal.

Finholt and Sproull use a somewhat bizarrely constructed dataset from a large Fortune 500 company with 100,000 employees of which 3,700 used an email system with support for arbitrary groups on a variety of topics both related to work and outside of work activities (e.g., movie reviewing groups). They use a stratified sample of 96 employees and gather 1248 messages that includes all incoming and outgoing messages. Of these, 616 messages were from groups. They ask each user, each time they send a message, what the message was about and if they could have received the information some other way.

Their results are primarily qualitative and include extensive quotations from a variety of different groups including a film criticism group and another group called the "rowdies" which seemed to be an irreverent discussion and drinking club. They characterize the diversity of work and non-work related groups in depth and discuss some of the major disagreements on the lists.

The authors conclude that all three social processes of groups are clearly shown in the discussion lists in the authors' sample with large amounts of interaction, influence, and identity work. They conclude that play at work is one thing they saw frequently in the use of discussion lists that may point to discussion lists as an opportunity for studying play at work.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Finholt and Sproull was one of the first studies on the use of electronic mail groups in firms. As email has become commonplace and even taken for granted in most organizations, and outside, its major conclusions seem obvious or even banal. It's hard to imagine the paper being published today. It is hard not to approach the paper with a "so what?" attitude.

The authors seem to treat discussion lists as more generalizable than they are actually are. In hindsight, many aspects of the system in their focus organization seems idiosyncratic or simple a matter of the particular time and place. Today, many of the groups would be much more likely to be found on social network sites outside of the firm.

The paper has been cited 300 times since it's publication 20 years ago.