The Business-Technology Weave

Jul 30 2010   1:10PM GMT

E-Mail – A Parallel Universe?

David Scott David Scott Profile: David Scott

E-mail has become a parallel universe for storage.  Users (that is, all of us) have constructed elaborate file structures within Inboxes, Sent folders, etc., that rival anything in the enterprise.  This is so that we can file things, find things, reference things, respond to things, etc.  Oftentimes content is copied to several accounts, and different areas within various accounts, where it mutates into different meanings and uses based on edits and alignment to other reinforcing content. 


Contributing to the problem are vendors who are writing their business applications so that reports’ data can be delivered into e-mail folders.  The thinking is:  the one application that most C-level executive types are able to navigate is e-mail – and indeed the one app that everybody uses and is best familiar with is e-mail.  So, why not deliver reports into folders inside e-mail, conveniently marked:  4th Quarter Finance Report, Current Membership Count, etc., etc. 


This distortion of the e-mail system is a poor idea.  E-mail has now been compromised – its focus blurred.  E-mail should remain a communication vehicle.  It’s overlap into the area of storage, retrieval, and its feeble content management capability is redundant, confusing, and inefficient.  Further, maintenance such as retrieving deleted e-mail content for reinsertion to a user’s e-mail environment can be an enormous chore – even putting the stability of the production mail system in jeopardy.


Why store long-term content in the e-mail system, which is comparatively volatile?  After all, there already exists a stable system of data locations, access control, and securities in your organization, which happily does not burden one of your prime electronic communications systems.  It’s your network folder environment. 


Realize that with appropriate training, everyone will make better use of systems and applications without bastardizing e-mail.  Also, realize that as time moves by, staff will be more facile in their use of systems.  This will happen through formal training and their self-motivation – it will also happen through the process of attrition and replacement.  Therefore, you should be building expectations of use with a bias toward efficiency.  Since everyone is becoming more tech savvy as time goes by, we should expect people to file, manage, and retrieve the information they need directly to and from respective business applications according to systems’ best use. 


The Misplaced Burden:  Managing e-mail has now become an elaborate endeavor for IT and Business:  notifying users about system deletions and when to archive; running reports; reviewing mailboxes for size, content, number of items, size of items, age of items, inappropriateness, etc.  Sometimes this oversight spills out of IT:  there are business people who review mailbox reports in many organizations.  This may seem like a disciplined approach to “managing” e-mail, but in fact it is not disciplined.  It’s an example of a runaway, uncontrolled, system of “over-management.”   This approach is a poor idea.  All of this “managing” out amongst the leaves of the tree is inefficient, and expensive.  Let’s get – not to the trunk – to the root of the situation.  All of this human oversight and forced activity robs us of the resources that we have a crucial need for elsewhere.


Realize that e-mail is primarily about communication.  The e-mail system should not be a records or content storage system.  (The introduction and growth of content management systems, and their position relative to e-mail and other content, is an important exposure and lesson within the changing Business-Technology Weave).  An e-mail system and its contents should be lean and mean.  Any e-mail content that is important enough to keep should be filed elsewhere for whatever longer-term storage suits the item.  If it’s related to budget, put it into a network budget folder; if it’s contract related, put it into an appropriate network folder, and so on. 


Put the Burden Where It Belongs:  Most e-mail should be answered quickly, generally within the window of the most aggressive cleanup policy.  Most e-mail is answered within hours, and business etiquette dictates that e-mail is at least acknowledged within a day.  E-mail should be dispatched within 30 days – answered (within a day or two), any contents saved as (and where) appropriate, and original e-mail deleted.  When you do have e-mail contents that can serve as reference, or require keeping, groom your users to offload e-mail to appropriate network folders.  It will be easy enough to retrieve and provide relevant prior info as a future attachment.  The user can also choose to cut-and-paste relevant electronic material into an e-mail. 


Even if a chain of communication is thought to be important, it can be saved outside of the mail system, as content, and tagged accordingly.  But keep this in mind: You should not be relying on e-mails, in an e-mail system, to document agreements, commitments, or obligations.  We have the ultimate authority of contracts for those things.  Any interim agreements, as supporting e-mails to those kinds of things, need to be stored outside of the e-mail system in relevant folders for  contracts, service agreements, policies, and other documents.  Getting this control will greatly aid the return of “e-mail” to what it is supposed to be.


So, rather than archiving mail, or merely keeping it around forever, users should be encouraged to Save mail to network folders, according to content, whereby the resulting file will undergo the assignment of metadata.  The file will experience subsequent management according to its content, not the whimsy of some e-mail system and/or administrator’s whack of data according to an arbitrary date.  Remember – in an e-mail system, content is disposed of according to a date that serves the administration of the system; content is not treated according to its value.  Once former e-mail content is filed appropriately on the network, you’re managing content according to value, which reduces not only a burden in the e-mail system, but the opportunity for mistakes.  Advantages far outweigh any disadvantages. 


Once you get a new policy in place, and once the users get the hang of it, you will get important content out of the e-mail system. With discipline, it is possible to have everyone efficiently offloading relevant e-mails to folders within the network folder structure – where permanent and semi-permanent data belongs.  It will now be managed from content and storage considerations along with all other content – this will be a leverage and an efficiency.  This satisfies our driving of all content to an appropriate, centralized, network repository. 


Try to manage e-mail the same way voicemail gets managed:  You listen, you call back or forward when necessary, you write something down or type notes where necessary, then you delete the voicemail.  Get users to administer their e-mail in a similar fashion:  They read the e-mail (analogous to the “listen”), they respond to and possibly forward the e-mail, they file to a central network folder if necessary (analogous to writing down or note typing), then they can delete.  A properly managed mail system will be far more cost effective, easier to use and administer, and be far more secure.


July 30th:  On this day in 1844, the first U.S. yacht club was organized – the New York Yacht Club.


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