Computer-Mediated Group Writing in the Workplace

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Computer-Mediated Group Writing in the Workplace

Janis Forman

As computer technology increasingly becomes a common tool that writers use in the workplace, those of us who are interested in how groups of writers work collaboratively need to turn our attention to the place of the computer in group writing. (1) Over the next three years, a colleague and I will be studying how computer technology influences the writing practices of management students who write group reports for organizations outside the business school. (2)

In preparing for this collaborative research project, I conducted a separate study (1985-1986) of the group writing practices of managers who use electronic messaging to produce a variety of documents in groups. When the data gathering is complete for the current three-year project, my colleague and I plan to compare my earlier findings on the work of managers in industry to our findings on the work of management students. The former group is composed of experienced users of electronic messaging the latter is composed of novices.

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The purpose of this article is to review my preliminary conclusions on computer-mediated group writing of managers in the workplace and to suggest possible directions for further research. I begin with relevant background on the study site, a description of the equipment and its typical uses, and a brief overview of my research methodology. Then I move on to preliminary conclusions, suggestions for further research, and a discussion of the relationship between this early study and the one that will follow.


The study site is a 11-person company which manufactures software. It is headquartered in Santa Monica and has several small regional and international offices. All employees belong to a telecommunications network established in 1977 when the company was formed. The network allows employees to exchange short messages and long documents.

The group studied consists of the seven managers who compose the Marketing group. Each has had several years experience working with word processing and electric messaging.


Managers are linked on home and office terminals to an electronic messaging system. The system has integrated word-processing capabilities so that, with one keystroke, a user can move from electronic messaging to word processing and vice versa. Managers use the word-processing capabilities to draft and edit documents. To comment on a document written by a colleague, managers typically add their comments to the original in capitals or in boldface, place the comments right after the pertinent passage, and return the document as an electronic message. (3) The manager responsible for the document then reviews the comments and makes the changes.

Brief messages and full documents can be sent to individuals or to distribution lists, some of which include people working in different parts of the continent. The Marketing list, for example,

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includes one manager in Toronto and another in Colorado. Although only systems-level managers such as the Head of Marketing can compose distribution lists, any manager may send a message to a distribution list simply by designating the list as receiver of the message.

Before sending a message, managers have an opportunity to retrieve it and either edit or cancel the message by pushing a default key; however, once a message is sent, it cannot be retrieved.

Managers tend to store only documents-in-progress and those messages that contain reference information. Whether long documents or brief statements, messages can be stored in a manager's general mailbox. Alternatively, the manager can set up a separate mailbox to store related messages.

The integrated word-processing capabilities and the ease with which managers cancel or change messages, store messages, and use the distribution lists make this system flexible and efficient. Drafting, receiving comments, revising, and storing messages all occur within a single system that all users share.


Six group writing projects were studied: a sales proposal, an ad, a marketing plan, software documentation, a memo explaining software uses, and a memo arguing for the importance of training. Each project was written by managers within the firm's Marketing group.

In addition to reviewing drafts and electronic messages concern ing each written assignment. I attended a large group meeting and interviewed the seven members of the group on their uses of computer technology, their attitudes toward technology, and their beliefs about the technology's place in the larger organizational context. I participated in much of the project from my home on a terminal provided by the company.


1. Difficulties with audience analysis may be exacerbated by the use of electronic messaging.

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Difficulties with audience analysis, which arise in many kinds of writing tasks, seem to be exacerbated by the use of electronic messaging. More specifically, some managers tend to lose sight of whom they are communicating with when they use electronic messaging. The result can be a breakdown in communication.

These difficulties appear in two ways, as inappropriate tone and as inappropriate use of electronic messaging when another communication medium would be preferable. Inappropriate Tone Inappropriate tone is reflected in offensive language. As the Head of Publications reported,

Until you know people you're messaging, mail can easily insult. The perceived tone of the message may not be the writer's intended tone. A message is felt to be nasty by the reader who responds in kind. The originator of the first electronic message responds accordingly. He gets nasty though he started out being friendly in the first message.

Some managers may be aware that they want to achieve a particular tone but don't have enough control of their prose to achieve it. One manager reported that some of his associates resort to what I call a "crude iconography"- reminiscent of pre- or post-literate culture: They use graphics symbolically. A flame signals anger. A smile turned on its side introduces a joke. The use of graphics may also stem from corporate or group conventions of style for electronic messaging. The Technology group, much discussed by the Marketing group, uses a flame to indicate the beginning of angry remarks and a "flame off" sign to indicate the end. (5)

The newness of electronic messaging as a communication medium may contribute to the problems that some managers have with tone. To learn how to communicate using "old forms" of communication like letters, we can turn to good models. By contrast, electronic messages lack this history and are virtually without convention except, perhaps, in the case of those companies that have established norms. In the company under study, everything from formal memos to subjective, fragmentary writing fell under the category "electronic message." The range of styles and the lack of stylistic conventions may have resulted in messages

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being misconstrued. Occasionally, managers were operating, metaphorically speaking, in a "Wild West" of discourse. "Shootouts" occurred: One manager refused to use electronic messaging because he claimed that others "shot him down" or misinterpreted what he was trying to say in his messages. As his colleagues noted, "J- won't share knowledge online because he is not understood."

Inappropriate Usage

Inappropriate usage refers to messaging when another communication medium is preferable. Good communicators, the Head of Training reported, know when to switch communication medium. For instance, when the Technical group gets into a thorny technical problem or heated debate over the message system, the group meets face-to-face. Or, when the Head of Training needs to send a message that runs more than three screens, she puts it in a memo so that her readers can scan it quickly.

2. The management of information systems is crucial to the effective use of electronic messaging in group writing.

Computer-mediated group writing worked best when there were explicit rules or unambiguous informal agreements about the uses of electronic messaging. In the course of developing a written product, managers made clear when they wanted to continue messaging and when they preferred meeting or talking by phone. The system worked efficiently. By contrast, when the Marketing group was re-organized midway in the study and a new member did not know how electronic messaging was being used by others, her ignorance of her boss' use of the messaging system nearly led her to turn in an unsatisfactory document. Several days before the deadline, she sent as an electronic message an outline of a marketing plan to her boss. In the message, she asked him to review the outline and to send her his comments. When she heard nothing from him, she used her original outline to write her plan and would have turned it in as final copy except that one of her colleagues stopped her. Her colleague explained that their mutual boss was out of town and that, even when he was in town, he never used the electronic mail system to review documents.

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3. A group's maturity and the repetitiveness of its tasks enhance the group's ability to use electronic messaging effectively.

The documents I studied were written by managers who often work with one another on similar assignments, and operate in a hierarchical structure with clear lines of authority and responsibility for written products. The routine of the work assignments and the maturity of the group seemed to contribute to the effective use of the technology and to the ease with which the group used it.

4. Electronic messaging reduces geographical distances.

Electronic messaging allows for geographical dispersion of staff. Two of the key managers in Marketing have their offices outside of Los Angeles. The manager in charge of graphics for brochures, ads, and manuals is located in Boulder, Colorado. She participates in all projects by using the electronic messaging system. The Head of International Marketing has his office in Toronto.

Despite geographical distance, the group members who work outside of Los Angeles feel a part of the organization; electronic messaging seems to contribute to group unity. As one example of the system's benefits, the Head of International Marketing reported that, although he has met with the President only six times since he was hired a year ago, their use of electronic messaging has enabled him to feel a closer connection to the President than the six meetings would suggest. Electronic messaging also helps him feel he belongs to the Marketing Group: "Being on the local [Marketing] mailing list counteracts the loss of camaraderie."

5. Electronic messaging reduces boundaries between business and personal life.

Electronic messaging brings personal life into the work day. The members of the Marketing group use electronic messaging for exchanging information about sports, parties, and events in people's personal lives.

Conversely, electronic messaging brings the work day into employees' home life. The Head of International Marketing described this impact of electronic messaging in the following way:

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"EM is like 'Good Morning, America.' It invades your privacy, coming into your bedroom with the news." The work habits of the Technical group epitomize this impact. Most of the group don't go into the office. Instead, they work at home from their terminals.

6. Managers use electronic messaging for different reasons and see different advantages.

There seems to be no single standard for using electronic messaging. As the Head of Training noted, "People use 'em' in individual ways. Some empty their mailboxes daily. Others (like herself) do 'paper shuffling.' They allow mail to pile up and then put it in another file." In discussing the diverse uses of electronic messaging, the same manager also mentioned that people in technical areas use electronic messaging for project management and as a public forum for exchanging information about technical problems. Different Advantages

As for the advantages of electronic messaging, two managers mentioned accountability:

If Sales orders something fast but doesn't give us enough time to handle the order, I have a record of their late request. (Head of Training)

I use EM to solicit opinions of multiple readers concurrently. Since people get others' comments regarding a piece, if reader X is late, I can send him a message saying 'I'm waiting for your comments' and it's clear to all the other readers that X has not replied. (Head of International Marketing)

The Head of International Marketing also concluded that electronic messaging results in more efficient and effective meetings. "You can dispose with scene setting, so a two-hour meeting becomes one hour. There's 'precommunication' about the subject so people are better prepared to meet and discuss."

The Director of Marketing suggested that electronic messaging is an excellent replacement for phone calls since the two parties don't have to be simultaneously available, and he can decide when to read and respond to messages.

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Another claimed that electronic messaging suited her management style: "The old way [memo writing] is 'out of sync' with the way I think. I'm an instant action person. Things need to be done and said now. Memos are too slow. They have to go through a secretary and then get mailed."

7. Electronic Messaging is Used Throughout the Writing Process.

Review of the documents and interviews suggests that electronic messaging is the preferred communication medium when managers need to revise drafts of a document, and that it is used throughout the writing process. Electronic messaging was used at the revision stage for three of the six documents (and will presumably be used for a fourth which is yet to be completed). It was also chosen to handle the early stages of the writing process such as setting the goal of the communication, gathering information, and scheduling. The idea for the memo explaining software uses was first presented as a message from the Head of Training to contributors. In the message, she outlined why the memo was needed and what kinds of things it might cover. Electronic messaging was used in the sales proposal for extensive data gathering (e.g., information about international copyright law, product features, and negotiation strategies). Electronic messaging was also used in the software documentation task for setting up the schedule and for establishing the division and coordination of tasks.


Clearly this preliminary study needs to be supplemented by further research. Here I present five research questions that might be fruitfully addressed:

1. When in the production of a written document is it best for writers working in groups to use electronic messaging? When are other communication media (e.g., telephone, face-to-face) preferable and why? In my preliminary study, no clear pattern of usage or preference emerged.

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2. Does electronic messaging encourage writers to use writing as a heuristic? In other words, does the ease with which people can use electronic messaging encourage them to think speculatively and to put their half-formed ideas in writing as a message rather than, for instance, "brainstorming" in conversation. Certainly, the Marketing group more often put their preliminary ideas about written documents into writing than they would have if they had lacked a telecommunications system. In fact, the memo on software uses began as an electronic message consisting of one manager's half-formed thoughts about what such a memo should contain.

3. How do groups develop policies and establish conventions or "etiquette" for using electronic messaging to create written documents? The Marketing Group consisted of long-time users of the system who worked together frequently on the same kinds of documents. As a result of their experience working together and using technology, the group, by and large, knew when the members would and would not use electronic messaging. In sum, they had an informal policy. By contrast, the management students that my colleague and I have begun studying will, I surmise, have significant difficulties in using electronic messaging productively. The students are naive users of electronic messaging who have not worked together much and are taking on a new, sophisticated writing project-- a strategic-level analysis for a business. The obstacles they may face include learning to use the technology confidently, understanding each team member's writing habits and communication preferences, and determining how best to handle a new writing assignment. (6)

4. Do groups develop convention for the format, organization, content, and style of their electronic messages? If so, how are these conventions developed and what are they? What are the consequences of not developing conventions? Even as newcomers to an organization, effective communicators pick up the organization's style of communication. In one firm, memos have to be typed on company letterhead. In another, they can be handwritten on personal stationary. What happens if there are

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no rules about what constitutes appropriate style of presentation for electronic messaging?

5. How do we characterize electronic messages as discourse? It is certainly not writing as we know it. Even without doing quantitative stylistic measurements, I found that the electronic messages I reviewed tended to be a hybrid discourse. For instance, messages often had much of the casualness and repetition of speech but the focus and permanence of writing.


This early study of computer-mediated group writing in the workplace sets the stage for the larger study of management students' group writing by providing a contrasting example. The marketing managers have worked together for months or even years, they are experienced users of electronic messaging, they use the system for routine writing tasks, and they operate in a hierarchical structure with one person dearly in charge of the documents they produce. By contrast, the management students have not worked together before extensively, they are novice users of electronic messaging, they will use the system for a new and difficult writing project, and they operate in leaderless groups.

The three-year project on management students' use of electronic messaging in group writing is primarily action-research. That is, my colleagu