Saturday, June 4, 2011

E-mail management, part one

A few days ago, I attended a Central New York ARMA event at which David O. Stephens analyzed the Top Ten Issues Driving Records Management Today. As might be expected, Stephens devoted a lot of attention to the challenges posed by electronic records, and I was particularly struck by his strategy for improving the management of e-mail.

Stephens noted that e-mail is now the dominant form of business communication: more than 60 percent of electronic business documents are transmitted as e-mail attachments, and up to 60 percent of business-critical information is stored in the messaging environment. However, IT departments struggling to keep e-mail systems operational typically purge all messages after a relatively short time (e.g., 90 days) or force end users to limit the number of messages stored in the system. End users who need to retain older messages must either save them to an "archive" on a local or shared hard drive or print them out.

From a legal discovery standpoint, these practices are profoundly troubling: retaining messages that could have been disposed of increases an organization's legal exposure, combing through individual e-mail archives, paper printouts, or backup tapes is time- and resource-intensive, and overlooking an obscure archive or tape stored offsite can have devastating consequences.

Stephens also pointed out that the orthodox records management approach to e-mail -- having end users match the content of individual messages to a specific records series and organize the messages accordingly -- is, quite simply, a recipe for failure. Unfortunately, too many records managers still believe that end users must be responsible for managing their own e-mail.

Stephens asserted that individual messages fall into one of three categories -- short-term value, medium-term value, and long-term value -- and treating each category as follows:
  • Short-term. This category comprises messages of transitory value. Users should be trained to identify such messages and to delete them from their mailboxes on a daily basis. Most users will have to devote 10-15 minutes a day to doing so, and supervisors should support and encourage this practice.
  • Medium-term. Messages not deleted by users should be classified as having routine business value and should be automatically transferred to an e-mail archiving system at regular intervals. These messages should be retained in the e-mail archiving system for 3-7 years depending upon the organization's resources and needs; 3 years is generally the minimum retention period needed to satisfy legal requirements, but organizations that opt for a more conservative approach may opt to keep e-mail for 5-7 years.
  • Long-term: The number of employees who send or receive messages that should be retained for more than 3-7 years is relatively small, and the total number of messages that warrant lengthy retention is also small. Employees who are likely to send or receive such messages should be taught how to identify them and to either print them out or transfer them to an electronic records management (ERM) system.
As Stephens points out, this approach isn't perfect: some employees simply won't identify and delete messages of transitory value, and some employees who send and receive messages that have long-term retention needs won't consistently identify them and remove them from the messaging environment. However, it is a vast improvement upon current practice: it relieves end users of all responsibility for managing messages of routine business value, relieves IT and legal staff of the obligation to go through backup tapes and those pesky individual e-mail archives, and ensures that messages that have reached the end of their retention period won't hang around and increase the organization's legal exposure.

The only problem that I have with Stephens's approach is its reliance upon technology -- not because I believe that e-mail archiving systems and ERM systems are inherently deficient but because many records managers will find it hard to justify their purchase, particularly in the current economic climate. In the absence of pressing e-discovery concerns or regulatory requirements, governments and a substantial number of non-profit and corporate bodies will no doubt continue to classify e-mail archiving systems and electronic recordkeeping systems as second- or third-tier priorities.

Moreover, in some instances, organizations that see the need for these IT investments may have difficulty finding products that truly meet their needs. Owing to the market dominance of Microsoft Enterprise/Outlook, users of Enterprise/Outlook systems can select from a wide array of compatible e-mail archiving products. Lotus Notes users also have a decent number of choices, but users of other systems have fewer options. Users who are outsourcing their e-mail to the cloud may well be dependent upon their cloud service providers.

I nonetheless hope that records managers embrace this approach and start pressing their employers to make the requisite IT investments. Stephens noted that when we get snail mail at home, we toss the junk mail, put the magazines on the coffee table or nightstand, and place the bills in our "to-do" pile, but we don't put any of this stuff back in the mailbox. Why, then, are we storing e-mail in our inboxes? We need to start asking senior managers and IT personnel this question and pushing them for a better answer.

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