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E-mail retention trends and challenges

By Mark Levitt and Robert Mahowald

Information overload fueled by rising volumes of e-mail and other electronic content is an unintended consequence of the Internet age. The real and perceived risks of uncontrolled information flows are driving otherwise rational organizations and individuals to an all-or-nothing approach. They either save everything indefinitely in case it might be needed in the future, or they quickly delete everything that is not absolutely critical to minimize storage and avoid having internal information that could be used in lawsuits.

As in most parts of life, the best approach is often the middle path, which would suggest intelligent, selective retention for an appropriate time with the help of archiving technology to automate the process and minimize reliance on human compliance. That will be the key for organizations to successfully retain not only e-mail but also other types of content for personal, corporate and legal objectives.

In dealing with the rising volume of e-mails and other electronic content that flow into our inboxes and across our screens every day, we are often left on our own to decide what to save and what to delete. The how and when to save content is also often accomplished without formal tools or processes. The result is individual judgment that, when multiplied across the tens, hundreds or thousands of workers in an organization, creates a hodgepodge of approaches whose inconsistency can pose costly problems for individuals and organizations.

De facto registry

Unlike in the early PC age when individual PC users generated and stored electronic information locally, in the Internet age of global networked computing, content often relates and is of interest to geographically dispersed individuals and organizations. Whether taken from a public Web site, e-mailed over the Internet, posted on a corporate portal or generated by a transactional system, electronic content is increasingly of interest to circles of individuals whose identities and interests may remain unknown until some point in the future.

The rise of e-mail usage has been the single most important factor driving the exchange of electronic content. E-mail communications between people within and across organizations around the globe have replaced many phone and face-to-face meetings. In addition, e-mail with its easy-to-use file attachment capabilities serves as an electronic content delivery service.

The e-mail inbox, as well as private and shared folders, has become the primary de facto registry for recording electronic conversations, agreements, customer interactions and other business-related activities. The need to be able to go back and locate business content contained in e-mails, and possibly nowhere else, explains why personal and corporate reference are the two most common reasons given by respondents for e-mail retention policies and practices. E-mails are also kept for other business purposes such as legal compliance, disaster recovery and industry practice.

With personal reference as the leading motivation for e-mail retention, it should not be surprising that the process of e-mail retention is often left in the hands of individuals who create a jumble of practices even within the same organization. In IDC's E-Mail Retention Survey, nearly half of respondents indicated that retention is handled in a decentralized manner at their organizations, either without a policy or with only an informal policy.

No pain, no policy

The lack of formal policies for centralized archives means that there is little reliability and predictability relating to what content is retained, how long content is retained and how content can be accessed. In addition, the overwhelming reliance on manual processes makes it difficult for organizations to ensure that content will be retained and available for organizational needs such as corporate reference and legal compliance. Even where there is an informal policy or practice, the lack of automated processes means that individual users must be motivated and able to identify and archive all of the relevant content for the appropriate period of time.

Despite the growing reliance on electronic content and the obvious benefits to having easy access to such content, many organizations do not expect much change in e-mail retention policies or practices. The situation presents challenges for e-mail archiving solution providers such as KVS, Legato, Scopeware, StorageTek, Tumbleweed and Zantaz. While the potential market demand for automated, centralized e-mail retention solutions remains largely untapped, without organizations implementing more formal retention policies, it will be harder to convince organizations to deploy centralized, automated retention solutions.

The lack of a pressing need and a feeling of pain within business units for better e-mail retention means that many IT departments will not be actively looking to deploy an enterprise e-mail retention solution. As long as organizations believe that current e-mail retention levels and approaches are meeting current corporate needs, e-mail archiving systems will risk being perceived as a solutions in need of a problem. The answer for archiving solutions vendors is to show organizations that current policies and practices fall far short of satisfying what retention objectives should be, in light of changing corporate and legal requirements and the availability of cost-efficient, e-mail archiving solutions that can operate automatically and invisibly.


Robert Mahowald is senior analyst, Collaborative Computing, with IDC (idc.com), e-mail rmahowald@idc.com, and Mark Levitt is research director, Collaborative Computing, e-mail mlevitt@idc.com.

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