, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 43-64
Date: 21 Aug 2009

Understanding engineering email: the development of a taxonomy for identifying and classifying engineering work

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It is widely believed that email is increasingly becoming the medium where in collaborative engineering work is done; yet, this assumption has not been properly examined. Thus, the extent of engineering information contained in emails and their potential importance within the context of knowledge management is unknown. To address this question, a study was undertaken with a large aerospace propulsion company to investigate the role and characteristics of email communication in engineering design projects. This paper describes the development of a taxonomy and classification method for achieving an understanding of email content and hence its use. The proposed approach is based on relevant techniques for analyzing communication and design text. The method codes the content of e-mail based on a hierarchical scheme by assigning email to categories and sub-categories that denote what topics the email is about, for which communicative purpose it has been sent, and whether it shows evidence of engineering work. The method is applied to a corpus related to the full life cycle of an engineering design project. Metrics for validation are discussed and applied to a sample case. Exemplar findings are presented to illustrate the type of investigations the method supports—including eliciting knowledge about project performance and identifying and accessing engineering knowledge. Finally, lessons from the development of the method, including a discussion of iteratively adaptive variants used to arrive at the final outcome, are discussed.