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For confidence-driven employees: Is automated collection a cure?

This article appears in the issue May 2015, [Volume 24, Issue 5]
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E-mail, once again, dominated headlines in early March 2015. E-mail, one can argue, is the killer app for the network-connected professional over the age of 40. Younger Gen Xers, the Y crowd and Millennials, and members of what some call Generation Z dabble in other digital communications. Think WhatsApp, Snapchat and similar new services.

E-mail is old-fashioned and less immediate than zapping a snippet of text, a video or an image to a friend or colleague. For the digitally forward, an app will simply send the word “Yo” to anyone. You can get the app at justyo.com. Brevity, it seems, is the soul of signaling. The developers of Yo are said to have received $1.5 million for “a single-tap, zero character communication tool”.

In government circles, communication, about e-mail and other messaging matters, is more long-winded. If you want to get a timely explanation of the e-mail policy in the Executive Branch, I recommend “M-14-16, Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Branch and Independent Agencies”.

I am thinking about e-mail in the U.S. government because The New York Times tackled the subject in a fascinating article in March, “Emails Clinton Said Were Kept Could Be Lost”. The sentence that I highlighted was: “The State Department’s disclosure that the archiving of senior officials’ e-mails only began last month [February 2015] reflects a broader confusion and slowness throughout the government as federal agencies struggle to catch up with the digital age.”

Government e-mail

E-mail in government agencies, in my experience, is supposed to be swaddled in systems under the stewardship of security and technology professionals. The user name and password is, in theory, linked to a particular individual. The messages are passed through systems designed to record, back up and monitor those under the government umbrella.

The processes used to specify what happens, when, to whom and how are variously described as security policies and procedures, rules or governance. The idea is that in a government, preventing unauthorized access to the messages exchanged via e-mail is a management task. To ensure that the bureaucracy has access to e-mail, thousands labor in Washington, D.C., Paris and other seats of government.

Also in March, The Wall Street Journal posted a “roundup” article, “Hillary Clinton’s E-mail Practice Unusual for Time”. The essay pointed out the alleged details of Hillary Clinton’s approach to e-mail. The article contained a passage I found interesting: “Her [Hillary Clinton’s] use of a private e-mail account for official business likely didn’t break any laws, but did run against department guidelines.”

I learned that a spam filtering service allegedly had access to Clinton’s classified e-mails. See “Spam Filtering Service Had Access to Clinton Classified Emails”.  Employees at MxLogic, now part of McAfee, had full access.

The article reports: “What this means is that when Obama or anyone in the State Department e-mailed Hillary, the e-mail went to MxLogic. It was then decrypted, checked for spam and viruses, and then re-encrypted and sent over the open Internet to Hillary’s server. While it was at MxLogic, it could be read, tapped, archived or forwarded to anyone in the world without anyone knowing. This system has serious security implications. E-mail to McAfee’s servers might be encrypted and e-mail out of McAfee might be encrypted, but while it’s at McAfee any employee who has access to the filtering system can tap and read any e-mail going to that domain. So, for example, if I’m a Russian spy, ISIS, North Korea, Fox News or a 14-year-old hacker, all I have to do is bribe someone at McAfee or hack their work login, and get to read all the e-mail of the Secretary of State.”

Crack in compliance

About 11 years ago, I did knowledge work for an investment bank. Prior to the meltdown and the dissolution of that multi-billion dollar organization, I observed employees using various computing devices. The younger and more computer-savvy, the more gizmos were checked, touched and spoken to. Most of the individuals with whom I interacted had company laptop computers, a terminal/computer in their cubicle, a company-paid mobile phone and a personal mobile phone.

I remember asking a young MBA eager to make her fortune in the Wall Street Klondike, “Why do you have two mobile phones?” The answer was straightforward: “I use one for work and trade-related information, which is part of the firm’s compliance effort, and I use the other for personal stuff.”

Out of earshot from the senior vice president presiding over the meeting, I asked another individual with one phone in each hand during a break, “Do you use your personal mobile for business?” I recall that the answer was: “No. But if my work mobile goes dead, I probably use my other phone.”

Does this seem like a chink in the compliance activities of the institution’s professionals? Several issues related to knowledge management are embedded in the apparent slipperiness of e-mail and its use. On one hand, the emergence of the confidence-driven workplace gives individuals considerable scope of action. Fueled by the professional’s confidence in himself or herself, the individual can easily operate outside or around the organization’s span of control.

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