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The corporate records conundrum: capturing e-mail in corporate records requires the right approach to technology, but solving the problem sets the stage for future challenges. (Business Matters).

At the Core

This article

* discusses ways organizations can effectively manage e-mail

* explains the records management challenges presented by e-mail

* explains how organizations can integrate e-mail with their records management program

Everyone loves the convenience of e-mail, but e-mail is striking fear into the hearts of many in the world of records management. It is ironic that a technology so effective and easy-to-use could induce such concern. But the fact is, it has become a monster that many are not quite sure how to tame.

E-mail offers a wonderfully easy way to communicate--tap out a quick note, attach a few documents, if needed, hit "send," and away it goes. No telephone tag or garbled cellular calls. E-mail has taken the world by storm, from companies to governments to individuals; it has been embraced as a means of both business communication and casual conversation. And therein lies the downside: e-mail's volume and pervasive use, its mix of business and casual communication, and its dual status as a document and a conversation introduces tremendous risks for organizations. Information contained in an e-mail can haunt an organization for years and provide damning evidence that may result in expensive fines and settlements. Companies from Wall Street's biggest brokerage houses to Microsoft have learned that lesson recently.

The concern over more effective management of e-mail is not new. It is an issue that many organizations have known needs to be addressed in time. But the sudden fall of Enron triggered a chain of corporate scandals that reverberated through the business world and suddenly brought the issue of e-mail to the forefront for records managers. Tough new government regulations, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, have been passed in response to this seemingly endless stream of accounting and corporate scandals. While these regulations do not address e-mail management directly, they have certainly put the focus on better recordkeeping and accountability. As a result, these laws are fueling a tremendous sense of urgency in many organizations to reduce the risks of e-mail and manage it more effectively as corporate records.

As organizations wrestle with e-mail, other technologies used to communicate--some mature and some just beginning to evolve into new uses--will present similar challenges. The tough new regulatory environment businesses are operating in today has implications for these technologies. Suddenly, the e-mail monster has a few cousins: voicemail and multimedia technology. These technologies have the same risks as e-mail and as they become more integrated with other systems in the enterprise, the pressure will grow to capture this important content for records management. Thus, businesses need a technology solution that allows them to evolve records management capabilities to meet these new demands.

Policy Before Technology

To address the records management challenge e-mail presents, it has become increasingly clear that a policy framework within an organization must drive the technology solution. Organizations must define how they want to approach the problem, based on their risks and regulatory requirements, and what types of message content they want to capture. A careful assessment of these issues is the foundation for an effective records management solution. This may seem like common sense, but it is a huge challenge for most organizations. Knowing what critical e-mail or other communications to capture is difficult and complex.

One of the biggest issues with e-mail is that e-mail repositories were never designed for centralized retention to serve a broader corporate purpose. Organizations maintain mountains of e-mail without a central repository. E-mails come in to an organization by the thousands and reside in individual mailboxes with no consistent organization. In addition, the volume of e-mail in most organizations is overwhelming, with the vast majority of messages having little or no value for records management. In order to capture and retain what is really important in the universe of e-mail across an enterprise, organizations have to take the difficult step of defining the types of e-mail content that warrant retention.

Some organizations decide this is too difficult a challenge. Instead, they take a policy short cut, a "scorched-earth" approach of sorts, deciding that all messages should be purged after a set amount of time. While this approach is simple, it is not an adequate solution given the current regulatory environment. It almost guarantees that important e-mails that should be retained will be deleted.

Other organizations take a different approach and decide to keep everything. One option is to back up all e-mail to tape, storing it in case it is ever needed. The other, more ambitious approach is to retain and treat all e-mail as corporate records. This approach is more effective, but it also means there is no discretion in capturing e-mail, so retention and disposition rules get applied to e-mail that, under normal circumstances, would never be considered important corporate records.

To Retain or Not to Retain E-mails

Many organizations choose to leave e-mail retention in the hands of the user. The reasoning is that because the individual is closest to the e-mail's content, he or she is in the best position to decide if an e-mail should be retained. Retaining the e-mail can be as simple as a drag and drop into the right folder in a records repository. This solution, of course, leaves a lot of responsibility in the hands of the end user, a responsibility many may not want. It also may increase the opportunity for human error. To reduce the risks with this approach, organizations are working to set some clear guidelines for end users that define the types of e-mail content that should be retained. Issues such as who holds the record copy of an e-mail and the responsibility to retain it are defined ahead of time. Training also is important to ensure that end users understand how and where to retain e-mail.

A more ideal approach for managing e-mail and capturing what is valuable is applying intelligent classification technology to e-mail. This involves the use of content-aware classification technologies that are just beginning to be introduced for use with e-mail. The promise of the technology is to allow organizations automatically to assess e-mail content by looking for certain content markers so it can be retained in accordance with pre-defined records management requirements. This automated approach leaves less to chance and allows organizations to zero in on what is important in the vast stores of e-mail they receive. It also provides a uniform way to apply classifications created by records managers across the organization, rather than leaving it up to the end user to decide what to retain.

Any of these approaches might be suitable for an organization, depending on its circumstances. But defining an organization's requirements is the critical first step to developing the right solution. In addition, any solution an organization chooses should be viewed as a starting point that can be evolved as needed to address new requirements or new technology.

Records Management for Everyone

To address e-mail and other communications technologies with regard to records management, organizations must view records management as more than a department-level responsibility. After all, e-mail is an enterprise-wide technology and the only adequate records management solution is one that covers the entire organization. This means records management impacts every end user and all information is maintained according to predefined policies and rules established by records managers.

The best way to approach this from a technology standpoint is not to deploy a special application across the company or create a lengthy set of procedures that must be adhered to by everyone. Instead, organizations should deploy records management as an integrated piece of an organization's knowledge infrastructure. Organizations continue to move toward centralized repositories and more sophisticated knowledge management capabilities. These centralized repositories offer a ready-made platform for enterprise-wide records management. With this approach, records management is built into a centralized repository, with a subset of information within the repository managed in accordance with an organization's retention and disposition rules. Organizations with more advanced knowledge management strategies will have an easier time applying records management enterprise-wide.

This more integrated technology approach is advantageous when taking e-mail into account because records management becomes an integral part of a broader, centralized knowledge strategy and, maybe more important, records management becomes standard practice throughout the enterprise. When e-mail is added to the equation and linked to this central repository, e-mails can be retained for knowledge management and records management purposes. This is a more strategic way of managing important e-mail while delivering enterprise-wide records management for e-mail so that it is managed in a uniform, consistent manner throughout the organization.

It is important to note that in order to successfully merge e-mail with knowledge and records management, simple, unobtrusive interfaces must be used. End users should not be overwhelmed by complicated new procedures or inundated with excess metadata fields to complete. As much as possible, end users should be allowed to continue current processes. The act of managing e-mail in the corporate repository should be as simple as managing a personal "in-box." Too many extra steps will create a barrier to input. In addition, organizations that adopt an automated approach to managing e-mails should ensure that end users can easily retrieve e-mails once they have been placed in the repository.

Harbinger of Things to Come

The records management challenges of e-mail portend similar challenges with other technologies. Organizations must recognize this reality and account for it in their records management and technology planning. Essentially, organizations must take the view that digital content in any form could contain important corporate records and must at some point be brought into the records management fold.

Voicemail, while not a new technology, is potentially the next messaging technology to receive the kind of attention that e-mail gets today. Traditional voicemail products are separate, proprietary systems that can not be integrated with an organization's computing infrastructure. But the days of the standalone voicemail system are coming to an end. More sophisticated messaging platforms are beginning to bring voicemail into a wider messaging environment. Soon voicemail will become just another digital object, a file in a computer, just like e-mail or a word-processed document. The further this evolution goes, the more pressure there will be to address the voicemail risks. Strangely, what will drive organizations to address voicemail is not so much the risk; the risk is there today, as with e-mail. It is rather the ease with which voicemail can be captured as content in a central repository. As the technology improves, the onus will fall on organizations and records managers to capture critical voicemail content.

Multimedia content will need to be accounted for in the future in much the same way as e-mail and voicemail. In the years ahead, we are sure to see new applications of multimedia in everyday business. For example, as collaborative technologies advance and further integrate audio/video capabilities, there will be new pressures to capture and retain some of this content as corporate records. Consider an online meeting tool that incorporates multimedia technology as part of a Web meeting environment. The multimedia content from that meeting could be considered as important as a corporate record and retained.

As with e-mail, the only way organizations can prepare for the challenges of voicemail and multimedia technology is to already have an enterprise approach to records management. As with e-mail, these technologies are or will be pervasive throughout the enterprise, so only an enterprise-wide records management solution can solve the problem. By addressing e-mail effectively, organizations will have a records management approach and technology infrastructure that can serve as a foundation for capturing voicemail, multimedia content, and any other new technologies in the future.

Preparing for new technology and regulatory demands is becoming and will continue to be standard practice in records management. Concern over the risks of e-mail alone can be overwhelming. Organizations must begin with a clear assessment of risks and needs, and decide on a technology starting point for addressing e-mail. Then they can build on their solutions over time, phasing in new capabilities to expand the kinds of content they can capture. Despite the growing challenges, records management will continue to grow in importance as a corporate-wide practice and as a means for reducing legal risks and ensuring accountability.

Tracy Caughell is Product Manager for Records Management Solutions at Open Text Corp. She may be contacted at
COPYRIGHT 2003 Association of Records Managers & Administrators (ARMA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Caughell, Tracy
Publication:Information Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2003
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