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Managing the message

If you never considered e-mail as a staple of KM, think again. E-mail management products let you manage e-mails like any other documents.

By John Harney

Most people don’t think of e-mails as documents. However, if they aren’t, what are they? After all, they are most workers’ primary collaboration tool and they have their own life cycle like any other document—they need to be created, indexed, searched and retrieved, routed, stored, secured and finally purged. The problem is that most messaging systems lack sophisticated mechanisms to perform all those activities. Most knowledge workers make do, for instance, by manually retrieving an e-mail by scrolling through the header information of e-mails in their in-boxes. That’s tedious, time-consuming and frustrating—especially when there’s a better way. It’s called e-mail management.

E-mail management products are typically used in organizational settings, work with popular messaging systems like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange and generally use Web browser interfaces. Most of the activities that they were designed to address are ad hoc—basic collaboration, not production work processes. So they are relatively affordable and easy to install and use.

Save and search—archival tools

Messaging systems give users only about 45MB to store messages—so the more messages they get, the more they also lose as e-mails move through the cache. Message archiving products are designed to store many more e-mails as well as autocategorize them so they can be automatically found. They address the index, search/retrieve and store stages of the e-mail life cycle. Although many e-mail management products address more than those activities, all do those basic ones, so archiving tools are the backbone of all e-mail management products.

According to Priscilla Emery, president of e-Nterprise Advisors, there are two types of archiving products. The first, she explains, autocategorizes all e-mail based on header information like the names of senders and recipients, dates and subject. For evidence in a trial, for example, all e-mails to and from X and Y people in a company on or around a certain date can be located easily. The second, she says, selectively autocategorizes only relevant e-mail based on the content of the e-mail body and attachments. That method might be used to find all e-mail evidence having to do with a certain deal a company completed. The first type uses traditional search and retrieval indexing, says Emery, while the second uses techniques like content filtering that apply rules to content to organize it by theme.

Many archival tools are used by companies like those in the financial sector that have to meet the requirements of regulatory compliance. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for instance, considers as part of the financial record all internally generated e-mail, client communications, as well as all data relevant to the pertinent Internet sessions—especially e-commerce transactions—and can request that it be part of evidence in court. To cover their legal liability, Emery says, companies will use the first type of archival product that autocategorizes all e-mails. If they have “a specific business justification for retaining e-mails,” she adds, “they will archive only relevant ones.”

Share and care—filtering and collaboration tools

Filtering and collaboration tools enhance collaboration, often in customer service environments, by scanning e-mail content and then automatically routing messages based on subject matter or other criteria to the people best able to act on it, according to Emery. For instance, if you e-mail the customer service department of a major online service provider that you are having a problem getting on their service, the system might filter the body of your e-mail, discover that you have a Windows-, not a DOS-based system and forward the e-mail to a Windows expert.

These products focus on indexing, searching/retrieving, routing and storing and are often used in customer service environments like call centers. Here, they do things like routing incoming e-mails to appropriate experts or automatically answering certain types of e-mail queries with generic responses.

Parse and purge—security tools

Security tools perform numerous tasks like scanning incoming e-mails for malignant code or encrypting outgoing e-mails. Many also quarantine suspicious incoming e-mails until someone authorizes their entry into an organization. Others will purge or encrypt sent e-mails after a certain period of time. Imagine a security problem relating to e-mail, and these products will likely handle it. They tend, therefore, to focus on searching/retrieving, securing and purging activities in the e-mail life cycle.

E-mail—It can make or break you

Other considerations aside, the sheer number of e-mails that companies must field will only grow. IDC IDC says the number of e-mails worldwide will explode from 2.6 trillion in 2000 to 9.2 trillion in 2005—largely as a result of e-commerce and automated customer support. Also, in the wake of scandals like Enron and under pressure to be ever more productive, organizations are feeling an unavoidable urgency about adopting more value-added types of e-mail management tools.

Whether they want to index and store e-mails to meet industry retention regulations, purge them after a set period to cover their legal liability, or automatically route them to improve customer service, they can no longer treat e-mail as low-priority ephemera that merits only passing regard. In the wrong hands, an incriminating message could undermine an entire company in court. In the right hands, it can create the kind of productive interactions that convince a customer to remain loyal to a company for a lifetime.

A selection of vendors

When it comes to message archiving, IXOS Software offers an especially robust and scalable solution for large enterprises. It works with both Notes and Exchange and can manage up to a petabyte of data. Messages can be retained according to a default time schedule or users can intervene to purge them as necessary. The system can, for instance, automatically delete e-mails of a certain age and size to conserve storage as well as establish retention policies for different user groups. SRA International’s Assentor is a leading message archiving product in the finance sector. It uses a context-searching engine to find key phrases in e-mails that show which financial regulations might have been violated and then quarantines questionable messages for subsequent human review before they are archived.

Firepond’s EServicePerformer Answer is a versatile, multitasking filtering and collaboration product. It autocategorizes the content of e-mail queries sent to call center agents, then routes messages to appropriate agents based on criteria like customer service territory and agent availability. It also generates boilerplate responses or automatically composes more custom responses that agents must approve before they are sent out. Firepond also escalates messages based on the urgency conveyed by the message content.

By contrast, Tacit’s product, KnowledgeMail, classifies and routes e-mails according to users’ areas of expertise. It continuously filters their e-mails for key information so as to gradually build expertise profiles for each user. It then publishes the profiles in general forums like enterprise portals. Personnel requiring specific expertise can refer to them there. The system also automatically routes alerts to experts when someone requires their expertise, and experts have the option of responding or not. The system also learns over time, so the profiles get refined and updated to reflect individuals’ changing areas of focus.

Security tools are some of the most various of all the types of e-mail management products. For instance, Tumbleweed Communications’ Secure Guardian products perform tasks as different as encryption, authentication and virus scanning. But they also perform policy-based filtering and block outgoing messages from company personnel to be posted to, say, public message boards or incoming ones from problem Web sites. They are especially effective at detecting and quarantining messages dealing with pornography. Tumbleweed also does electronic bill presentment—it pulls information from a company’s backend applications, formats it as, say, a monthly bill, and securely delivers it to customers over the Internet.

Different vendors take different approaches to automatic e-mail purging and quarantining. ZipLip’s ZL Mail and ZL Secure encrypt customers’ incoming messages, then store them on the ZipLip secure server in-house. The server automatically alerts users when they get mail and then requires them to type in a password to access e-mails on the server. The product then deletes all read messages after a certain period of time.

Disappearing E-mail from Omniva Policy Systems also purges e-mail after a set period, but it does so by expiring the encryption keys so users can’t access encrypted messages.

Worth brief mention also are hosted and wireless e-mail management solutions. A few ASPs like Critical Path, ZANTAZ and docHarbor are also offering hosted e-mail management, mostly the nondiscriminatory type that doesn’t index the actual content of messages. With its Digital Safe and Compliance Technology Solutions, for instance, ZANTAZ specializes in securely archiving and retrieving e-mails. It ensures security by backing up e-mails to multiple data centers and transmitting them by VPNs and other secure networks. However, it will also maintain a WORM archive for financial companies requiring an unalterable e-mail record.

Wireless e-mail management solutions address one key problem— reading all the text on a small-scale display. AmikaNow’s AmikaHighlighter SDK analyzes an e-mail’s contents and metadata to determine the gist of its meaning and presents a summary of it on the display instead. Based on that data, users can choose to have entire messages forwarded to them.

John Harney is president of ASPWatch, a consultancy that delivers strategy for application service providers, e-mail jharney897@aol.com.

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