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

  • James Wasiak
  • Ben Hicks
  • Linda Newnes
  • Andy Dong
  • Laurie Burrow
Original Paper


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.


Knowledge management Information handling behavior Content analysis Email Engineering work 



The work reported in this paper has been undertaken as part of the EPSRC Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Bath (grant reference GR/R67507/0). The work has also been supported by a number of industrial companies and engineers. The authors gratefully acknowledge this support and express their thanks for the advice and support of all concerned. In particular the authors would like to thank Laurie Burrow, Hamish McAlpine and Craig Loftus who contributed to the development of the candidate schemes.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag London Limited 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • James Wasiak
    • 1
  • Ben Hicks
    • 1
  • Linda Newnes
    • 1
  • Andy Dong
    • 2
  • Laurie Burrow
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Mechanical Engineering, Innovative Design and Manufacturing Research CentreUniversity of BathBathUK
  2. 2.Design Lab, Faculty of Architecture, Design and PlanningUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  3. 3.Converteam LtdRugbyUK

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