posted 5 Jun 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 9
The last word
Understand human aspects before adopting e-mail technologies
Times columnist provides advance thoughts on e-mail management in preparation for her one-day masterclass in
By Dr Monica Seeley
It’s true, we live and die by electronic communications no matter what our business, from lawyers to high street shops. Rightly or wrongly, no one expects you to call or get up from your desk and go talk to them. They just expect an e-mail.
The result, as other articles in this issue have demonstrated, is a major headache for IT departments as they try to manage and contain all this unstructured knowledge and information. Hence the growth in electronic records management (ERM) systems and the development of MoReq2. But is this the answer? Are we addressing the real problem or just the symptoms?
What are the issues from the business user’s perspective, sitting with either a client baying at him for a reply, which may take some time to construct, or in an inbox with over a 100 incoming e-mails?
At the other end, there is the CIO needing to demonstrate that his part of the organisation is contributing to the bottom line and never more so than in the current economic climate. What are the symptoms for the CIO’s team? Are both groups of people pulling in the same direction?
At the corporate level, e-mail is one of the principle causes of the need for such ERM systems and MoReq2 so that all this unstructured and often transient knowledge and information can be captured and reused and disclosed if required.
Yet at the personal operational level e-mail is now recognised as one of the top 10 stressors. Some feel so overwhelmed they are declaring ‘e-mail bankruptcy’ and just emptying their inbox and starting again. However, for many this just may not be an option.
ERM just another layer
For a very large percentage of users (from all aspects of the business, front line service staff, sales people, lawyers, finance etc) such ERM systems and procedures just represent another task and layer of management on top of a very fraught day. A recent survey we conducted revealed that less than half the respondents (43.4 per cent) did not have a records management policy and 30 per cent did not know (or maybe even care) if there was one.
Moreover, from my own experience – even where there is an ERM policy is place – users often find it very hard to work out what needs to be retained and what can (and indeed from a compliance perspective) should be deleted.
The end product is a bulging inbox which is often nearing the point of being unstable and contains a mass of material which probably should never have been sent by e-mail in the first place. For example, confidential pricing information, poorly worded e-mails, which could be open to misinterpretation and leave the organisation wide open to a breach of governance and security. Next time you meet with a group of users (at whatever level) in the organisation, ask them: How secure is information sent in the body of an e-mail?
Not only do few users recognise and understand the security issues related to e-mail, they also often fail to appreciate the need to clean up any attachments too. But why should they? E-mail is a tool and like the tires on a car, you expect the manufacturers to make the necessary health and safety checks and provide a tire that meets the required standards.
However, what you would expect the driver to understand and do for themselves is be able to check if the tire is worn and thus falling bellow the minimum required standard. Yet how many organisations provide any kind of e-mail training, let alone education about retention and management of electronic communications.
A recent survey we conducted across 130 executives found that only eight per cent said that either they or their manager had ever been offered any e-mail management training. So is it really any wonder users have overflowing inboxes and that IT managers are struggling to stabilise their systems and cope with demands for more storage space and faster server speeds?
Moreover, the content of these e-mails is often suspect: careless words written in haste and retained for years which then reveals a breach of corporate policy or lax corporate governance.
Most systems deal with capturing incoming e-mails (scanning and capturing and archiving) but what of outgoing e-mails? Generation Y has grown up with e-mail and finds it hard to understand and accept the need for systems and policies. Often they do not see the need for e-mail management training and guidelines on how to write a good business e-mail which will stand the test of time and be held up as reliable and in-controvertible evidence in a court of law.
Yet, there is a clear, and to some extent large, dividing line between how we use e-mail in our social lives and how we use it to communicate at work. That divide needs to be recognised and defined if organisations are to manage risk properly and hence manage their information and knowledge assets. It is pointless implementing an ERM system if the records being stored are not what one would wish to see produced as evidence in either a court of law or industrial tribunal.
E-mail is not new. It’s been around for over 30 years. What is interesting is that it has not changed fundamentally since it was first used. It was designed as a messaging systems for short clear concise messages. What has changed is its accessibility and availability.
Maybe because it’s ‘always on and in your face’, we now use it for everything from a casual remark which in the old days would have been whispered at the photocopier, but is now broadcast to the whole organisation and sometimes the world outside, to a formal communication which really ought to be a document.
Little wonder many companies have had their five minutes of fame as the star of an e-mail disaster, whether for an indiscrete e-mail or because they are unable to find the relevant e-mails. Some would say that archiving, EDM and content management systems are the solution. However, systems alone will not prevent this happening, at least not so long as there is a human being who is some part of the system and process.
All too often we spend 80 per cent of our time on the technology with little regard for the human being at the end of the chain – the user who is made all the more frail and susceptible to errors through stress. Cutting corners on training is a recipe for disaster.
Yes, we need MoReq2 and many organisations need robust EDM systems (although some who are privately owned would also deny the need they still like to keep everything very close to their chest). Nonetheless, underlying these is the urgent need to address one of the main causes of the problem and hence why all this unstructured data has become so unmanageable – e-mail.
Save 45 minutes a day
Users trained in e-mail best practice can save up to 45 minutes and day and reduce the e-mail stress. This has to be good news for the organisation and its individual employees from several perspectives and not least in terms of greater efficiency, reduced risk of a breach of security and improved compliance and corporate governance.
A typical e-mail best practice training and education programme includes effective personal e-mail management techniques, how to communicate clearly and effectively through e-mail and the legal aspects of e-mail. This means clear guidelines on what to retain, where and for how long.
This is about changing behaviours which doesn’t happen overnight. Only when we address the human aspect of using electronic communications can organisations ever hope to implement successful knowledge management programmes.
Dr Monica Seeley, founder of Mesmo Consultancy, is one of
On July 9 she will facilitate Ark Group’s ‘Streamlining e-mail management’ masterclass. For more information visit www.ark-group.com/mp_introduction.asp?ac=445&nc=1&fc=167.