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?

5 comments:

Rachel Hardiman said...

I was also at the Witness Seminar and found the exchange of ideas and the discussions and explorations to be stimulating and exciting – not least the contributions of Steve, whose “keep it all” manifesto certainly provided one of the more provocative interventions and occasioned a lot of informal discussion among participants during tea-breaks and after.
Like a lot of what Steve says, it required thought, whether one instinctively agreed or disagreed. My initial thought was “well, why not? What exactly do we have to lose?”, and then to try and figure out, through my own thoughts and through discussion with fellow seminar delegates, what we might in fact gain or lose from adopting this position. In the end, I think we have a lot more to lose than to gain.
Fundamentally, I see three problems with the “keep it all” approach – it involves treating format, not function or content, as a fundamental categorization for records; it assumes that technology users will not accept structures and practices for their use of technology in the workplace different from those the employ at home; and it overthrows principles that have been elaborated through profound reflection and discussion by theorists and practitioners worldwide for a “quick fix” to accommodate what is, in the long term, a transient socio-technical problem.
My responses (or at least my responses this morning, after some but perhaps not fully adequate post-seminar thought) to some of Steve’s individual points are laid out below:
1. The basic argument here is “they do it at home so they’ll expect to do it in work”. People have always done lots of things at home, in both the paper and electronic environments, that they can’t do in work, and by and large have accepted that. It may well be the case that e-mail “bad practice” is pervasive, but that does not mean that it cannot be put into a context that staff can understand and agree with, and accept the need for re-training to change their habits. After all, some people keep every payslip and bank statement they have ever received in their lifetime in their home files, and the electronic confirmation for every book they have ever bought on Amazon; yet they would never expect that financial records in work should be retained beyond the legally required limit. They do not expect their personal information management habits and requirements to obtain in the workplace, accepting that corporate rather than individual logics or preferences drive policy and practice. Just because I as an individual might never subject my personal digital documents to appraisal or retention policies does not mean that I expect this to apply in work. It’s a bit like saying that because an employee is accustomed to lounging about at home in their dressing-gown and slippers, they will expect to be allowed turn up in work in similar garb and their employer will have no real recourse but to go with the flow and accept this as inevitable.
2. It is, of course, necessary to be flexible. Where a records manager really does feel that they are engaged in a dialogue of the deaf, it might well make perfect sense to engage in a tactical retreat on this issue and concentrate on areas in which they can engage more productively. But as other participants at the witness seminar pointed out, not all senior mangers take the same view on storage – some are seriously interested in finding ways to manage their information more effectively. There is a very big difference between ceding defeat in individual battles and admitting that we have lost the war, which is what Steve is implying. When you come down to it, why should concerned senior managers come to us as records professionals for a distinctive professional or disciplinary perspective or for possible solutions, if what we have to say differs little, if at all, from the sales pitch of e-mail storage vendors?
3. Capping is not a solution, but “keep everything” is not the only logical response – this is not necessarily a zero-sum game.
5. The same applies to all records, not just e-mails. All recorded information is potentially of use to future researchers; it is inevitable, in assigning finite retention periods to classes of documents, that material that we do not value but that could be precious to future generations will be lost. If this weren’t the case, appraisal would have ceased to be a topic of debate long ago. But to apply, say, a retention period of 10 years to a word-processed document and no retention period at all to its exact equivalent in e-mail format flies in the face of logic as well as of recordkeeping good practice.
6. One of the many interesting facts thrown up by speakers at the seminar was that the average cost of e-discovery in litigation in the US now stands at $20m per discovery request; this is the real cost of storing everything, and it is a cost that will increase in proportion with each decrease in the unit cost of e-mail storage.
7. This is a very attractive argument, but might not more responsible e-mail use also include practices such as use of meaningful subject headings, avoidance of strings of e-mails, use of folder structures, and so on, which would mitigate some of the records and information management problems associated with e-mail? If I can be trained or persuaded to see that it is not responsible behaviour to send offensive jokes around on e-mail, surely I can also be persuaded to see that it makes sense to conform to some agreed procedures to help manage the organizational resource present in the e-mails I receive and send?
In conclusion, i would certainly never deny that we should always be flexible and innovative in our approach, and that we need to evolve our thought to meet current needs; in fact, I agree with a lot of what Steve has said and written elsewhere on electronic records. But e-mail (and all e-communications) will inevitably evolve, too. We need to make sure that we do not lose credibility by throwing in the towel and retreating from good principled positions purely for pragmatic reasons related to current generations of electronic communication tools, when many of the problems associated these tools could (I don’t say will!) simply disappear in the next generation, or the one after that. The fact that someone doesn’t want to listen to what we say right now is not a good enough reason for merely telling them what they want to hear.

Steve Bailey said...

Hi Rachel,

Good comments one and all. As isprobably evident I am pretty much arguing this on the hoof so I don't doubt that there are a million and one flaws in my argument.

I would, however, (in the spirit of keeping the debate going) offer the following counter-views to your points:

1) I didn't initally make this point well enough and used too lazy a short hand to articulate it. Of course different standards apply at home and at work (though the barriers between the two are steadily diminishing in many respects). What i meant to say is that we are battling against some pretty powerful socio-cultural forces by insiting on rigourous deletion of email. People are now used to Yahoo and the like and our arguments about deleting stuff are beginning to look increasingly arcane.

We could have kept trying to insist that people send their notes to the typist rather than use a word processor, but eventually we would have lost.

We must also be careful that we don't fall into the trap of believing that just because we don't currently endorse keeping everything that it doesn't effectively already happen. As we heard yesterday our users already do this - in fact according to some of the confessions around the table so did many of those attending!

2. Allied to this, I would argue that I am being realistic rather than defeatest and instead choosing to invest in new weapons and new tactics for the battle. I'm not suggesting that we give up on email as a lost cause, simply that we acknowledge that our bows and arrows are no longer effective against the tanks and instead focus our efforts on developing some more effective weapons!

3. Agreed. But hopefully by pushing strongly at the other extreme to where the debate has been for so many years we might end up somewhere near a useful and practical middle!

5. speak to the guys at Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia etc and they will tell you that appraisal did cease to be a topic of debate years ago. Now I'm not saying I agree with this but they don't seem to have done too badly so far by going down this road!

6. Although it could also be argued that a large percentage of this cost is because staff are busy hiding all their emails in a dozen unofficial local places which are difficult and costly to locate. These costs would decrease dramatically if all bought under one large and effectice corporate umbrella

7. I would absolutely agree that all the 'good practice' training you identify is equally valid in both worlds. In fact I would suggest that the records managers role will be even more focused on the appropriate creation of email if we are keeping everything. Just because I am exploring keeping everything does not mean I am advocating that 'anything goes'; quite the opposite. The point I was making is that keeping everything means there are less 'dark corners' for people to commit crimes in.

As to your final thoughts, I fear that this is no temporary blip or deafness as to what we have to say. As we heard yesterday email is over 30 years old and by and large no one has listened to what we have to say during that time (at least not to the degree that it has changed the technology, user behaviour or the perception of our relevance to the agenda). As I said yesterday, the guys who invented the Betamax knew there's was the best video system right up until they ceased production due to the success of the inferior VHS...

James Lappin said...

Hi Steve

The key to whether this idea could be made to work is whether or not we could get colleagues to tag e-mails which contained personal information (about themselves or others).

If they didn't make that distinction then the e-mails that the organisation was saving would be inaccessible: data protection principles would mean that organisations could not allow colleagues to search across the repository of e-mails. My company could keep my e-mail in-box as long as it liked, but once I had left the organisation who within it would be lawfully able to access the contents?

The problem is that explaining and embedding the practice of distinguishing e-mails containing personal information from those that don't may be almost as difficult as embedding the distinction between important e-mails and trivial e-mails.

I would prefer to look for solutions that involve people finding ways of exchanging significant messages with each other in shared spaces (project sites, wikis, bulletin boards, blogs, whatever!) rather than between the personal silos we call e-mail in-boxes.

what do you think?

Steve Bailey said...

Hi James,

I agree that the management of personal data contained within emails would be a prime issue if we decided to retain all emails. Though arguably in reality it is probably no more of an issue than it is at the moment where many users/organsiations are already for all intents and purposes retaining the vast majority of emails anyway indefinitely.

I'm also not sure that i agree that the DPA need be quite as restrictive as you suggest. In my experience it seldom prevents you doing something with personal data, so long as you have cleared the necessary hurdles in advance. For example I am not sure why all of an employee's emails should not be accessible to the organisation once the employee in question has left just because of the DPA.

I absolutely agree that reliance on the user as the fulcrum of email management is always likely to be the weak point. Personally I suspect that adding a single 'tag' to say that the email contains personal data is more achievable than the thornier decisions regarding whether an email is or isn't a record etc that we currently expect users to make. It may also be that it is far easier to automate the management of personal data within emails - for example using text recognition software to identify personal names within emails.

LD said...

I am afraid I was not at the Seminar so if some of my points were covered I apologise in advance. I apologise also for the length of my comments.

The problem as you pose it seems to be that records managers have been asking users to manage their emails. Users have showed reluctance to do this. The answer is therefore to stop asking users to manage their email. I am not sure if this approach addresses the underlying issues of why we ask users to manage their email in the first place. Given that most knowledge workers spend their days knee deep in their inbox, and that email is the premier business communication tool, I am also not sure if records managers want to say that they have nothing meaningful to say on the subject of how to manage it (apart from “keep ‘em all”).

Let me look at your numbered points:
1/I have usually discovered that those having large mailboxes at work are those furthest away from having the information they need at their fingertips. Having “infinite space” does not equate to being able to find and use information efficiently.
I found it useful to work with my IT Department to get a TCO per Gb of email stored. This is the figure we have put in front of senior management and other email users when we talk about coping with/mastering/managing/surviving their daily struggle with their inbox.
Even with the decline in the cost of buying storage, multiplying TC0 per Gb by 50-70% uncontrolled growth per annum (factoring in both the impact and cost of any single instancing infrastructure you put it place) and you have the beginnings of a decent business case for a bit of training and guidance.
2/What cost was put on the appraising, sorting and destroying of emails? If it was one dollar less that the $1m for additional storage, why would dollar wise management turn their noses up at it? If, of course, it meant that they did not have to spend the $1m on additional storage space. Particularly if this $1m was just the cost of procuring the hardware and not the cost of maintaining the data over, say, 20 years.
3/The real cost in discovery is the bill for the lawyers reading what you have collected. Law Departments prefer less email: fewer external law hours and fewer potential smoking guns. Keep everything and you write a blank cheque to external counsel to read all those false positives thrown up by your search engine.
4/You appear to replace one “seemingly insurmountable problem” with what appears to me to be another seemingly insurmountable problem: how do we ensure that IT stores and makes accessible every email forever/indefinitely/in perpetuity?
5/This is not my key concern but I am not sure if future generations will thank us for saving every bit of email ephemera ever produced by every organisation.
6/How is this 1/10th figure arrived at? Industry reports tend to suggest that storage costs are consuming more and more of IT Department’s budgets:
Gartner says that storage as a percentage of total IT spend rose from 9% to 11% between 2004 and 2006 (Infrastructural Executive Counsel says 14% to 17% in the same period). Anywhere between 60% and 80% of this is unstructured data such as emails. IT Department’s tend to be firm supporters of email quotas, rightly or wrongly, as uncontrolled growth has an impact on their pockets.
7/I am not sure that this is the case or if it is a records management argument for keeping all emails. Good awareness training, a strong acceptable use policy signed by all employees and clear guidance on what to do if you receive an email that contravenes the acceptable use policy may be more effective and ultimately cheaper.

Finally, the key stakeholders in deciding whether email should be managed or not are, in no particular order, Law Deparment, Users, IT Department, Compliance Dept, RM Department. In most organisations all are in favour of managing it apart from a subsection of one group of stakeholders, the Users. I am not sure if we should let them dictate what records managers do and do not do.
And how we manage it? Ah well, that is a different story.