posted 19 Dec 2008 in Volume 12 Issue 4
Last word: Channelling the flood of e-mails
Just organising the flow and sorting of e-mail isn’t enough. Electronic communication produces documents that must be managed just as paper documents are. Here’s how.
By Doug Miles
E-mail management is not optional. You have too much e-mail flowing into your in-box and it’s almost certainly out of control. It has the potential to overwhelm your organisation, drowning productivity and exposing you to legal risks.
The Radicati Group estimates the volume of global e-mail is now 220 billion per day. Gartner indicates a 40 per cent growth in e-mail every year. As e-mail has become central to how business gets done, its management of e-mail has not kept pace with its importance. The continued lax attitude surrounding the use of e-mail, and a lingering perception that it’s ‘just’ e-mail, exposes all organisations to unnecessary risk. Any e-mail – whether residing on the messaging server, in the ‘deleted’ folder, ‘archived’ and saved locally, or on a shared drive – is legally discoverable.
A recent AIM survey indicated that 65 per cent of
Saving all e-mails in a vast, undifferentiated lake is a recipe for disaster. Many IT departments think that backing up e-mails to tape is sufficient. It is not. In addition to the problem of merely finding the correct e-mail – since backup files provide no indexing – saving e-mails that you don’t need exposes a company to unnecessary risk.
E-mail needs to be linked to a records-management system, which allows the appropriate retention schedules to be applied while easing retrieval issues and ensuring e-mails and attachments are stored once. Unmanaged, e-mail can overwhelm your IT systems and cause great damage to the health and image of your department. Guided into the appropriate channels, e-mail can continue to power your organisation.
E-mail management strategy
Because e-mail touches all areas of an organisation, and is key to getting work done, multiple departments need to work together to create the e-mail management strategy. While IT has the technical skill to create the infrastructure, other groups have the knowledge needed to determine what needs to be saved. The ideal team should consist of IT, RM, Legal, HR, the chief compliance officer and several end-user departments. As with any initiative of such broad strategic importance, it must be fully supported by the CEO and other executives.
While 99 per cent of companies use e-mail for business purposes and 83 per cent have a formal policy for e-mail use or abuse, AIIM research reveals that only 45 per cent of companies have guidelines for e-mail retention. Into this gap fall e-mails that should be retained but aren’t – and the reverse.
A policy is crucial so that your employees know what to do, but so is auditing to ensure the policy is being followed correctly. A formal e-mail policy that is not adhered to is a greater liability than no policy at all. You should also incorporate other forms of electronic messaging, such as instant messaging and mobile phone messaging, into a broader electronic communications policy.
Despite the volume of e-mail as a whole, individual e-mails are, to simplify the issue, potential business records and should be treated that way. Records-management systems and e-mail archiving systems are the tools needed to channel the flood of e-mails into a manageable tool that adds value to the organisation. E-mail requires software that can save the e-mail, at least as text if not in its native file format (text, HTML, RTF, etc.); save the appropriate metadata for indexing and retrieval; apply the appropriate retention schedule; manage attachments; and provide an audit trail.
One of the most difficult issues is that e-mail messages must be analysed to determine their value to the business and retained accordingly. No matter how well written your e-mail retention policy is, humans are notoriously prone to error (and laziness) when it comes to filing documents. Automated tools can analyse e-mail text and attachments to perform initial classification – and will frequently produce more consistent results – but humans should periodically review things to ensure accuracy.
As a business record, e-mail must be part of an organisation’s compliance initiative. E-mails outside the control of a records-management system, but still held somewhere in the network, are still at risk of discovery, and could make the department unnecessarily liable for information that it failed to control.
Legal discovery requires organisations to produce all records relevant to a particular subject for which they are being investigated, or citizens that they are in dispute with. Guidelines vary between countries but e-mails are now generally included in the pre-trial document exchange process. A legal hold may be required to freeze all potentially relevant records from the time of notification.
Attachments and storage
E-mail attachments are challenging to manage because of their size, as well as the different versions stored in the e-mail repository. An effective e-mail solution will provide attachment management, including single-instance storage and versioning. Look for solutions that can analyse and index text-type attachments such as Office documents or PDFs. Collaboration suites with single-stored/multiple-access documents can minimise attachment proliferation.
It is perfectly acceptable (and desirable) to use tape as a disaster recovery back-up for a properly managed RM database where the primary storage is magnetic disc, or where the tape is managed as part of the repository by the RM system, but the practice of relying on tapes generated by the back-up system as the archive itself is simply invalid from a records-management viewpoint.
Managing e-mail through an RM system or e-mail archival system allows a single, official copy of the record to be maintained. Other copies are destroyed. This eases the challenge of tracking down multiple tapes in multiple locations to destroy content according to a retention plan. Long-term access to e-mail, as with other electronic documents, is problematic. Best practice is to write to high-quality media, examine periodically to ensure the information remains accessible, and plan to migrate documents to new media and/or current technology periodically.
Print to paper
Whether part of a formal procedure, or indeed in conflict with it, many employees will print their e-mails to paper and file them conventionally – the ‘print and file’ approach. This may be a solution of last resort and is “backwards compatible” with traditional records keeping. However, filing cabinets will fill up, shared access is restricted and they are time-consuming to retrieve.
In addition, the conversion process can cause irreparable data loss to both the contents and the metadata. The information printed may bear little resemblance to that actually sent – especially where graphics and hyperlinks in HTML e-mail are concerned. E-mail should be stored in its native format in an appropriate electronic system. Paper-based e-mails may not be considered admissible in court without the associated linkage information and audit data, which most people fail to print out.
To help users implement a compliant e-mail strategy in their organisations, AIIM has developed an e-mail management education programme.
Doug Miles is the UK Managing Director of AIIM Europe. AIIM is the Enterprise Content Management Association, and offers training courses in ECM and ERM both online and as public classes. See www.aiim.org.uk. Doug can be contacted directly by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org