A Content Based Approach for Investigating the Role and Use of Email in Engineering Design Projects

  • James Wasiak

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The use of email as a communication and information sharing medium in large, complex, globally distributed engineering projects is widespread; yet there exists little understanding of the content of the emails exchanged and the implications of this content on the design project, design records and contracts. The importance of these issues is underlined by the fact that email records can now be required as evidence in legal disputes. It follows that the overall aim of this research is to assess the role and use of email in engineering design projects. A state-of-the-art review of literature pertaining to email is reported, along with a review of information and communication processes in engineering design projects. The primary contribution of this thesis is the creation of a content based approach for analysing the role and use of email in engineering design projects. This centres on the development and application of a coding scheme to email text, identifying what subject matter an email relates to, why it was sent, and how its content is expressed. Results are then analysed with respect to the frequencies of each code and other variables, including how coding varies between different senders and throughout the project duration. The second key contribution of this thesis is the analysis of emails and content in an engineering setting by applying the aforementioned approach to two case studies. The major case study concerned a large, complex, globally distributed, multimillion pound systems engineering project, from which 16 000 emails were obtained. It was found that emails are mainly used to transfer information but also to support management functions. Emails facilitate design work but little of this takes place explicitly in the email content. Characteristics of a project affect the subject matter or emails but have little effect on why they are sent. User roles and personal preferences also influence email use. If was found that the purposes for sending emails varied over the duration of a project; it was further determined that these changes could be used to identify project progress and design activity. Implications of the findings are identified in relation to: information management, knowledge management, project management, collaboration and email practice. Significantly, emails do contain potentially important design information and because these often support decisions made elsewhere, emails should be integrated with wider records. More consideration and training should be given to the use of project standards for email use and guidelines for composition. Changes in email use over the project duration could be a potential tool for project managers to identify design progress and possible issues in a project.
Date of Award1 Jun 2010
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorBen Hicks (Supervisor) & Linda Newnes (Supervisor)


  • electronic mail
  • email
  • communication
  • e-mail
  • knowledge management
  • engineering design
  • information management
  • design information

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