Friday, 26 October 2007

A new perspective on email management?

I’ve just returned from a stimulating couple of days at Julie Mcleod’s excellent Witness Seminar event on the management of e-communications. As with the first event in 2005 it bought together an interesting bunch of people to discuss a broad range of issues, this time associated with the management of email.

It would be impossible to try to summarise two days of excellent discussion in a single blog posting, so I won’t even try. Instead I thought I would focus on the reaction to my (unashamedly heretical) proposition that the answer to our problems with email is actually to keep it all. Given that this flies in the face of pretty much all accepted records management wisdom I wasn’t sure what reception this might get - especially as most of the first day’s debate had taken it for granted that our goal must be to find ways of applying accepted ‘good records management’ practice to email, such as mapping it against business processes, separating ‘email information’ from ‘email records’ and how to consistently apply retention management controls to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’. But as it turned out a fair number of those presents seemed to agree that there might be some merit in this approach (with varying degrees of perfectly valid reservations).

So what prompted this tiny outburst of iconoclasm? Well, the more I think about it the more that the idea of taking a conscious business decision to keep all emails indefinitely (with a couple of important caveats) seems to make sense and for the following reasons:

1. It reflects the reality of the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. Rightly or wrongly we live a in a world where Yahoo now offers infinite storage capacity and many of its rivals as good as the same. This reflects a world where users are used to having all the information they have ever had at their fingertips in their domestic life and cannot comprehend why this shouldn’t also be the case at work. We need to accept that the information game is now about volume.

2. It acknowledges that senior managers would prefer to spend $1m per year on additional storage space than invest in efforts to appraise, sort and destroy emails. Why keep trying to promote a message that no one wants to hear?

3. It acknowledges that the intended but inevitable consequence of imposing caps on email storage and usage is force the user to squirrel their emails away in a dozen unofficial and local storage areas which makes legal discover far more time consuming and expensive than it need be

4. It solves at a stroke the seemingly insurmountable problems that records managers have been unable to solve for 3 decades regarding which emails are information and which are records

5. Unlike the process of selection and appraisal, which must always (by definition) be selective it is the only course of action which is entirely free from bias and the risk of disposing of the email which today seems trivial but would have been deemed gold dust by future generations.

6. It’s not as expensive as you might think. Sure storage is not free but as a fellow delegate pointed out after a few ‘back of an envelope’ calculations: the cost of storing last year’s email is probably around 1/10th of the cost of storing this years so it will always be a proportionately small cost to store previous years email.

7. It may encourage more responsible email use. The best way to discourage fraud, defamation, e-bullying, libel etc is for staff to be very aware that whatever they write will be added and retained as part of the corporate knowledge base.

The caveats? Well, we need to make our spam filters as effective as possible, focus on improving de-duplication to ensure we are only keeping one copy of each email and we need to specifically tag emails containing personal data to ensure compliance with the Data Protection Act.

Okay so there will inevitably be a hundred other issues for us to resolve and still huge obstacles for us to navigate (not least how to ensure that our users can cope effectively with this volume of information). But we have to acknowledge that even after 30 years the contribution of records management to the management of email has so far been pretty negligible so maybe its time to start looking at this problem from a completely different perspective?

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Retention by format, not content?

It is one of the basic truisms of records management theory: that decisions regarding retention requirements are made based on their content and 'regardless of format'. This was an especially useful mantra a decade or so ago when some users would otherwise see the electronic version of a document as some alien construct, completely divorced from its paper counterpart.

Its still a mantra we cling to today and trot out as our first instinctive response, but its limitations are becoming more and more obvious, for example when it comes to email. Yes, its easy for us to say to our users that they must manage the contents of their inbox not as emails, but according to the content they contain but this is seldom reflected in reality. The simple fact is that the sheer volume of emails faced by users makes this virtually impossible to achieve and the majority of decisions taken regarding the fate of email are either taken on an individual ad hoc basis ("I don't think I need this any more") or en masse ("I've run out of space allocation so lets delete all last year's emails/all emails with large attachments etc").

The news that UK phone companies are now bound by law to retain information about all telephone calls and text messages for one year sounds a further death knell in the practicality of the 'regardless of format' concept. Even though this data might be used for one of three levels of enquiry the decision has been made that all such information must be retained for the same period: regardless of content, subject or any other criteria. If its information about a phone call it is kept for 1 year - and that is retention based purely on format and 'regardless of content'.