Manage Email? Are You Kidding Me?

I don’t remember the first email I ever sent. But I’m pretty sure the second one was, “Did you get the email I just sent?”

Email has a way of propagating itself that way. Like the fruit flies that currently are swarming in the unusually humid northern New England weather we’re experiencing in my kitchen. (You know the old saying: “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.) Email and fruit flies are fecund. The only difference is: the fruit flies will eventually die. Email just multiplies.

Email is Different
In some ways the mass propagation of email is no different than that of normal business documents: there are multiple versions, duplicated data stores; revisions upon revisions; and often no clear agreement on the “single version of the truth” that is demanded by knowledge workers and their customers to do their jobs properly.

But it IS different, largely due to the social nature of the medium. I have often remarked that an email that seems innocent and irrelevant can be anything but. “Dear Martha. Let’s have lunch. I want to talk about that stock. Best, Peter.” Probably happened something like that, but it’s likely we’ll never really know. Email does have a way of replicating, but it also has a nasty habit of disappearing. And one of the biggest media moguls on Earth got guest accommodations by the Feds and an orange jump suit for a while as a result.

That social nature of the email beast also plays into the difficulty in “managing” it. (And I’ll put “managing” in quotes for a while here because I think it’s nigh on impossible to actually do. More on that later.) I talk to people all the time who provide tools that purport to more or less “automatically” seize important emails. But so far not one of them has claimed that they can, reliably, disregard the casual “did you watch Housewives last night?” ones.

To make matters worse, email tends not only to reproduce, but it also mutates into new forms. Laptops, handheld devices, smart phones have all allowed new habitats for email to swarm, only adding to the difficulty in forming the wandering emails into herds. (Have I mixed enough metaphors for you yet?)

Who’s in Charge?
And so we’re back to the propagation issue. Email management—if anyone thought about it at all—had been pretty much an IT issue, until quite recently. Somewhere in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, the sudden onslaught of “cc:s” and “reply alls” caught IT with their servers down, and their natural reaction was to impose draconian rules for erasure of emails. Some wiped their servers as often as every two weeks. They also imposed limits on individuals’ file size, some of which still remain in place today.

But changes in regulatory policies—most especially amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or FRCP—have now forced IT to re-think its strong-handed, wanton approach to the destruction of email. The rules now include email as part of the rather vaguely described category of “electronically stored information” (ESI). This means that any and all email messages that can be determined as relevant to a civil court case can be made “discoverable” by opposing counsel, and thus must be a. discovered, b. retained and c. delivered upon demand.

As AIIM, the industry trade group, put it: “The vast quantities of emails held in inboxes, sent folders and deleted-item folders put the organization at risk and adversely impact the performance of email servers. Email servers were never designed to act as repositories for such great quantities of emails and move control of this information away from the organization. Without the management of emails, it is difficult for organizations to meet their legal preservation requirements in the event of litigation and government investigations, increasing the effort and cost in responding to e-discovery and disclosure.”

For many IT shops, this has become yet another imposition of “business” into their domain. For some time now, the role of IT has changed from that of behind-the-scenes management of computers and networks to more of a direct supporting role in the business objectives and requirements of the organization. This has been a distinct emerging phenomenon we’ve often written about in these pages.

But, thanks to the new Fed rules, IT now has to act in lockstep with the legal department, too. For example, one of the requirements of the FRCP is that any document (or email) related to a case has to be placed into “legal hold,” meaning, of course, that it must be retained and made available for the duration of the matter.

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