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Enterprise-wide Techniques to Manage E-mail Overload

Dabbish and Kraut (2006) define e-mail overload as “e-mail users’ perceptions that their own use of e-mail has gotten out of control because they receive and send more e-mail than they can handle, find, or process effectively” (p. 431), and they link this phenomenon to work-related stress.

E-mail overload is a particular problem for managers.

As noted by Drury and Farhoomand (2002), knowledge workers who are expected to use e-mail to improve their productivity and decision-making ability, such as managers, need to identify techniques to manage e-mail effectively to avoid stress and find critical information. Common suggested techniques include: (a) setting aside specific times for reading e-mail during the day (Gupta, Sharda, & Greve, 2011), (b) higher proficiency with e-mail client organizational features (Soucek & Moser, 2010), and (c) individually tailored strategies for dealing with the stress of overload (Russell, Purvis, & Banks, 2007). However, these e-mail management techniques alone may not address the entire issue.

The purpose of this annotated bibliography is to examine selected literature to provide a set of proven e-mail management techniques for application throughout the enterprise that remediate and/or avoid e-mail overload, with the goal to improve work effectiveness. References included in the full study are categorized into four areas: (a) defining e-mail overload and why it occurs, (b) enterprise-wide e-mail management techniques that show the most potential to increase work effectiveness, (c) enterprise-wide e-mail management techniques that show the most potential to decrease work-related stress, and (d) the role of e-mail as an enterprise-wide general project management and informal workflow tool.

Techniques to Improve Work Effectiveness

Several techniques are suggested to limit the volume of unnecessary information: (a) using e-mail as a lightweight information sharing tool, such as training on e-mail client features to filter and sort e-mail more effectively (Karr-Wisniewski & Lu, 2010), (b) implementing automated attendants to sort and filter (Faulring et al., 2010; Mock, 2001), and (c) using human assistants to sort and filter e-mail messages for users. Only the use of assistants (both digital and human) is found to have a clear and demonstrable improvement in work effectiveness.

Techniques to Lower Stress

Proactive training on e-mail features has been shown to lower stress in some cases (Soucek & Moser, 2010), but in general the advice is to address the source of stress, namely the implied organizational expectation of immediate response to e-mail and task completion (Barley et al., 2011; Ramsay & Renaud, 2012). Suggested techniques include: (a) training on e-mail composition to clearly articulate deadlines, (b) setting corporate polices with clear expectations about reading and responding to e-mail outside of work hours, (c) frequent checking of e-mail but in a non-task interrupting way, and (d) sharing of best practices for e-mail management (Russell et al., 2007; Soucek & Moser, 2010).

Techniques to Support Task-Oriented Workflow

A clear picture emerges of e-mail as a fundamental means of sharing information and conducting work, but as Whittaker et al. (2006) note, in its current form e-mail does not necessarily handle task management functions well. E-mail users need to be able to easily and flexibly present various views of their inbox based on key words and metadata. The limitations of e-mail as a task management tool can be addressed by techniques that present contextual views of information, including e-mail threads associated with a given task or body of work.

Selected References

  • Barley, S. R., Meyerson, D. E., & Grodal, S. (2011). E-Mail as a source and symbol of stress. Organization Science, 22(4), 887–906. doi:10.1287/orsc.1100.0573
  • Dabbish, L. A., & Kraut, R. E. (2006). E-mail overload at work: An analysis of factors associated with e-mail strain. In Proceedings of the 2006 20th anniversary conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 431–440). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1180875.1180941
  • Drury, D. H., & Farhoomand, A. F. (2002). Managerial information overload. Commun. ACM, 45(10), 127–131. doi:10.1145/570907.570909
  • Faulring, A., Myers, B., Mohnkern, K., Schmerl, B., Steinfeld, A., Zimmerman, J., … Siewiorek, D. (2010). Agent-assisted task management that reduces e-mail overload. In Proceedings of the 15th international conference on Intelligent User Interfaces (pp. 61–70). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/1719970.1719980
  • Gupta, A., Sharda, R., & Greve, R. A. (2011). You’ve got e-mail! Does it really matter to process e-mails now or later? Information Systems Frontiers, 13(5), 637–653. doi:10.1007/s10796-010-9242-4
  • Karr-Wisniewski, P., & Lu, Y. (2010). When more is too much: Operationalizing technology overload and exploring its impact on knowledge worker productivity. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(5), 1061–1072. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2010.03.008
  • Mock, K. (2001). An experimental framework for e-mail categorization and management. In Proceedings of the 24th Annual International ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval (pp. 392–393). New York, NY, USA: ACM. doi:10.1145/383952.384033
  • Ramsay, J., & Renaud, K. (2012). Using insights from e-mail users to inform organisational e-mail management policy. Behaviour & Information Technology, 31(6), 587–603. doi:10.1080/0144929X.2010.517271
  • Russell, E., Purvis, L. M., & Banks, A. (2007). Describing the strategies used for dealing with e-mail interruptions according to different situational parameters. Computers in Human Behavior, 23(4), 1820–1837. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2005.11.002
  • Soucek, R., & Moser, K. (2010). Coping with information overload in e-mail communication: Evaluation of a training intervention. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1458–1466. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2010.04.024
  • Whittaker, S., Bellotti, V., & Gwizdka, J. (2006). E-mail in personal information management. Commun. ACM, 49(1), 68–73. doi:10.1145/1107458.1107494
AIM alumnus Jon Dolan

Research Paper Author: Jon Dolan, director, Network Services, Oregon State University—2013 University of Oregon, AIM Program Graduate.

Abstract: Modern knowledge workers (especially managers) are faced with an ever-increasing volume of information in the form of e-mail, yet e-mail management advice often fails to reduce the feeling of overload. This annotated bibliography presents selected literature published from 1988 to 2013 on e-mail overload to identify techniques for combating the problem. Enterprise-wide techniques identified include training on e-mail client features to filter and sort, use of assistants, and setting organizational policies about reading and responding.

AIM alumnus Jon Dolan
Jon Dolan (’13)
Jon Dolan (’13) received the 2013 Capstone Award from Dr. Linda Ettinger for his research paper Enterprise-Wide Techniques to Manage E-mail Overload at the AIM graduation luncheon.