Email Records Management- Part 1: The Truth

Smaller EmailA few years ago I wrote a widely-read and somewhat controversial article explaining why I no longer supported the US DoD 5015.2 records management functional standard. Up to that point, I had spent most of my records management career working very closely with DoD-certified products and publicly criticizing the 5015.2 Standard would ultimately cost me a great deal of income (and more than a few professional relationships).

But in the end, I don’t regret doing it. As a career records management professional, I had simply gotten to the point that I could no longer sit quietly along the sidelines and watch a horribly constructed standard continue to wreak havoc across the information lifecycle management landscape. And while a few misguided vendors and consultants continue to push their decade-old products and services based on the DoD Standard model of records management, most fair minded industry professionals have since moved on to implementing information lifecycle management solutions that actually solve their customers’ problems. I hope I played a small role in making that happen.

Since publishing that original article, I have continued to promote the kind of disruptive records management policies and innovative technical products that I believe must be implemented to realistically manage the lifecycle of information given its explosive growth over the last several years.

That said, I have steadfastly steered clear of publicly debating the ‘email records management issue.’ The truth is, I simply didn’t want to jump into what seems to me to be a bottomless rabbit hole of fear, misinformation and corporate avarice.

However, just as with the DoD 5015.2 Standard, I have seen enough. I have reached my tipping point with email records management and I’m ready to join the public debate.

So here it goes. Strap yourselves in…

The Truth about Email Records Management

A lot of misinformation has been generated around email records management over the last twenty or thirty years. Some of this misinformation has evolved organically, while some of it has been disguised as ‘technical whitepapers’ and ‘marketing material’.

Regardless of its origin, I’ve watched this misinformation spread across the industry and around the world. It has to stop. Forget just about everything you’ve heard. Here is the truth about email records management:

1. Managing the lifecycle of information created or received in an email format is no more critical to the success of your organization than managing the lifecycle of any other electronically stored information.

In fact, when compared to the staggering amount of redundant, obsolete or trivial material maintained at almost any organization, emails are a spit in the ocean.

There are really only two reasons ‘email records management’ is such a wildly public concern while the over-retention of all an organization’s other information rarely gets noticed:

  • First, for better or worse, emails have become a very visible, essential part of our lives. Everyone has at least one email account – and usually more. And just about everyone has hundreds, often thousands, of emails sitting in their inbox where they know the emails are likely to stay until the sun runs out of fuel and we are forced to leave the planet. People see those emails sitting there multiple times a day, every day. Emails have become a very personalized version of the general information over-retention calamity that virtually every enterprise is experiencing today. In short, people generally ‘get’ the email information lifecycle management crisis.
  • And second, people tend to write really stupid stuff in emails. Far more idiotic stuff then they would write anywhere else (with the possible exception of Twitter). Naturally, this means emails frequently end up as critical pieces of evidence in a whole litany of legal matters. And those legal matters often wind up being the lead story on the 7 o’clock news. Which ultimately has viewers running back to their offices the next day screaming about the tremendous importance of enterprise ‘email records management.’

2. Managing the lifecycle of information created or received in an email format is no more difficult than managing the lifecycle of any other electronically stored information in your organization.

Actually, given the right records management policies and some generic, out-of-the-box email server functionality, managing the lifecycle of emails – in complete compliance with internal and external requirements – is really much easier than managing the vast majority of your organization’s information maintained in other formats.

3. Very few emails actually hold any real long term value.

Very few.  Like, almost none.

This may be the biggest misconception out there, but in reality, all but an extremely small number of emails at almost any given organization are worthless soon after they are sent. Yep, worthless.  What’s more, with a few simple, strategic records management policies in place, those few emails could likely be eliminated, too.

4. Manual email records management solutions will fail to be adopted by end users 100% of the time.

Short of sticking a gun to their head, no information worker is ever going to manually declare and classify email records. Period. This has been proven beyond doubt, quite literally, millions of times.

Our end users are already overburdened with meeting their daily line-of-business responsibilities. They see no value in stopping their work to manage email records and they simply won’t do it. This was true 25 years ago when we first starting asking them to manually declare records and it is even more true today.

5. Automated record classification using content analytics products doesn’t work for emails.

Those of you who know me and my background may be surprised by this one. No one in the industry has done more to promote automated records management solutions leveraging innovative content analytic products then I have. I firmly believe Cognitive Era technologies are the only solutions to the unsustainable practice of ‘save everything forever’ that is the result of the failed records management practices of the past two decades. I’ve spoken and written about this extensively and I will continue to do so.

But just as only Nixon could go to China, I think I am as qualified as anyone to tell you that email records management is an exception to this rule.

Content analytics products work by analyzing an item of information and comparing its content (and with some products, its context) to sample material that has been previously fed into the product to provide a baseline index. When a match is detected between a new item of information and an existing baseline set of sample material, the analytics product provides a quantitative level of confidence in the match ranked somewhere between 0% confident and 100% confident.

Given the advances in this technology over the last few years, this analysis can produce remarkable results. Applied properly, content analytics technologies can vastly reduce – and even eliminate – any human intervention in the enterprise records management process.

However, even the best content analytic products require a minimum level of information to ‘understand’ and classify any item with an acceptable level of confidence. And given the extreme brevity and routine informality of most emails, the truth is they can very rarely be classified successfully in any real-world implementation.

Contrary to a lot of the marketing material I’ve seen floating around, in all my years in the industry, I have never actually seen a production automated email records management solution that could classify an email with enough accuracy to provide any realistic value.

6. A perfectly acceptable email records management solution can be quickly and easily created using native email server functionality your organization already owns – no third-party add-on products are required. 

There are a lot of products on the market that provide advanced email records management functionality beyond what you can find native to your email server. I’ve worked with many of these products and the majority of them have terrific feature sets that perform some pretty remarkable tasks.

But the reality is these products are often expensive, laborious to implement, generally do nothing to reduce the email records management burden on the end user and, quite frankly, are not required to build an email solution that effectively and inexpensively solves your organization’s email information lifecycle management problem.

OK, Now What?

So right now you’re probably thinking, “Alright, Don, if all of this is true, what does a successful enterprise-wide email records management solution look like?”

Good question, Faithful Reader. I’ll explain it all in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned.

5 thoughts on “Email Records Management- Part 1: The Truth

  1. #3 is classic: Very few emails actually hold any real long term value. Very few. Like, almost none. That is a view i’ve held for a long time which is nearly sacrelig amongst archivists. Some really good content here,,,

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