Email Needs Attention

Recently I spoke at a conference and discussed the need for every organization to manage their email more aggressively.  The driver for this was not the normal IT justification for space or performance, but the more important justification from an information integrity and document retention perspective.

Westcon benefits from solid leadership in our General Counsel.  They are always looking to work with IT on improving the company’s document retention policies and the tools needed for enforcement.  But, it may not be that way in every organization, and based on the reactions of some of the attendees, I think there is an opportunity for us collectively to help improve the situation for our customers.

The point of the presentation was that the argument for retaining emails because “we may need it if a customer calls and asks a question” or “what if there is confusion on a point of negotiation” may appear to be good reasons to keep email, but only for as short a period of time as is legally required.  This is not about covering up information, or being malicious in any way or form.  It is about the use of the existing structured, business process defined, transactional systems (e.g. ERP systems) to keep the historical record of account for the firm as opposed to allowing unstructured, unmonitored and fairly uncontrolled systems such as email to become the historical record of account.  Billions of dollars are spent defining business processes and then incorporating those processes into systems to ensure security, consistency and enforcement.  Companies place a huge emphasis on the editing and management of transactional information to ensure all the data ever needed to determine the details of a customer or supplier transaction are properly recorded and legal and ethical behavior is maintained.  There is an opportunity for all of us to work with our customers to help them begin thinking more about investing similar amounts of attention on email.

A few years ago I worked for a firm wherein a handful of individuals were involved in a price fixing scheme, using email to bypass existing system and negotiate the deals.  These emails became the basis for a set of crippling fines that put the firm into a tailspin.  Management quickly replaced any individual involved in the scheme, but ultimately these folks were caught because of the emails, and are now in jail or at a minimum out of the industry. 

More recently, it appears that poorly worded emails will play a role in the current investigations on Wall Street and I am sure there will be an investigation of all the emails for all the firms involved in the oil rig disaster still playing out in the Gulf of Mexico.  There is no denying email facilitates the speed of business, but when it becomes a tool to bypass existing corporate standard technology or business processes, then there is an opportunity to re-evaluate and re-align business processes and the technologies that support them.  The IT industry has the tools to help make this happen.  The opportunity is not sexy, but it is there in front of our faces.

An underlying theme is the implication for this problem in the world of collaboration.  Email is one of many forms of collaboration, but with any form of electronic collaboration, everything is recordable and quite possibly stored (internally, or in the cloud). As we begin to collaborate across a myriad of devices and mediums, the challenge for the industry will be to ensure that process integrity and sound business process rules hardwired into the customer’s transactional system are not unintentionally compromised or bypassed through the use of alternate technologies.

If, as an example, employee’s are bypassing the ERP system with email because the ERP system won’t “let me do something”, well, then work with your customer to ask why their ERP is wired that way. Help correct the flow in and around the ERP system to properly record what is right, and help the customer highlight that the firm really does not want the employee to “do something the other way”.   Proper process definitions in their SharePoint sites may be needed.  Or a fresh set of eyes on a more formal integration of the customer’s email environment with that company’s document retention policies could help deepen the relationship you have with your customer for years to come.

and, let them know, if their email inbox is too big, it does start to degrade performance too…!

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One response to “Email Needs Attention

  1. Richard Sloane

    You seem to be describing an emerging need felt by businesses today, a need that is becoming more urgent by the day, based on the examples you’ve highlighted.

    There is, in the first place, a records management requirement. AIIM (the Association for Information and Image Management) defines record management in the following way: “content of long-term business value are deemed records and managed according to a retention schedule that determines how long a record is kept based on either outside regulations or internal business practices. Any piece of content can be designated a record.” Firms will have to first define their record management and retention policies and then apply technology to enforce/automate those policies. This will become especially crucial for financial services firms if a new regulatory regime is introduced in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis.

    Firms looking to implement a records management solution are facing a complicated challenge, however, especially if their communications infrastructure is heterogenous (different platforms from different vendors providing different functions) and lacking a coherent, centrally managed classification framework. It will be nearly impossible, given the sheer volume of information, for firms to apply retention policies to email records they either don’t know about or are unable to classify via automation.

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