The need to manage emails differently to paper

by Frank 16. November 2011 13:16

The ISO standard 15489, see the following link, clearly and succinctly defines records as evidence of a business transaction and also clearly says that a record is a record regardless of media. This means that the business of records management means the management of all types of records including paper, electronic documents, images and emails.

For too long records managers have avoided managing emails on the basis that it is too difficult. One of the most common excuses I hear is that they don’t manage emails because they can’t avoid accidentally capturing ‘personal’ emails. This is of course nonsense as all it takes is a corporate email policy clearly defining the ownership of all corporate emails and advising staff what to do to ‘protect’ personal emails (e.g., put “Personal” in the subject line).

Of course why people are using the corporate email server to send and receive sensitive personal emails is beyond me. If it is personal and sensitive then do not use the corporate email server, use Gmail or Twitter or send an SMS. This should also be spelled out clearly in the company email policy; Caveat Emptor, “Let the user (buyer) beware.” That is, if you are silly enough to use the corporate email server for sensitive personal emails then be prepared to be embarrassed when other people read them.

However, let’s assume we have decided to manage emails in the most effective manner possible, and that certainly doesn’t mean printing them out and filing them as paper records, how should we best capture, classify, store, index and retrieve them?

Should we do it the exact same way we have traditionally managed paper records with file numbers, titles and a classification built from a hierarchical taxonomy? Or, should we do it in a way that makes it as easy and as fast as possible to capture and search for and view them? That is, shouldn’t we handle emails in a way most appropriate to their form, structure and content?

Emails don’t start out as paper so why convert them to paper?

Emails don’t start out with file numbers and titles so why assign them?

End users naturally search for emails by sender, recipient, subject, date sent, date received, etc., so why force them to search for emails by file number, title and or classification? Why make it as hard as possible for the end user to find an email when it is just as easy (even easier in fact) to make it as easy as possible for an end user to find an email by its natural and well-known attributes?

An email is not the same as a paper document or an electronic document or an image. An email has structure and content that everyone in the world is aware of and everyone in the world prefers to search for an email using that well known structure and content.

I course am talking about the common fields or elements of an email being sender, recipient, CC, BCC (usually not available), subject, body text and attachments. All we really need is three types of common searches; full text, Metadata and BOOLEAN (combining values of the elements of the Metadata in an AND, BUT OR NOT relationship) searching on these common fields and anyone can find any email in seconds.

By all means link an email to its parent folder (but it is not necessary) but please don’t force the long suffering end user to search for the emails the same way we have searched for paper over the centuries.

Allow the end user to search by date, sender, recipient, CC and subject plus the full text of the body of the email, plus any attachments. Give them a natural search that everyone understands and that no one needs to be trained on.

If you want to be as efficient as possible then don’t try to capture emails at the desktop, capture them at the server. Capture them before someone has the opportunity to delete them or simply forgets to capture them.

Capture them efficiently and totally consistently with an automatic rules-driven process that consistently and reliably (not forgetting or deleting anything) applies your corporate email policy day in and day out come hail or shine with no time off for  maternity leave, paternity leave, compassionate leave, public holidays, illness or vacations. You can do this because emails are different to paper, they can be easily captured, stored and indexed automatically; paper can’t be.

That is, use the computer to automate the capture of emails in a way that you cannot do to automate the capture of paper. Use the structure and content of emails and the power of the computer to your advantage.

Contrary to popular opinion, emails are actually much easier to capture and index than paper records but only if you use the computer to take advantage of the email’s natural structure and content. However, if you choose to manage emails the same way you manage paper then emails will indeed be difficult and time-consuming to manage.

But for heaven’s sake please don’t bog down the whole process in an overly complex, inexplicably intricate and incomprehensible Taxonomy. Please keep it simple or you will end up with hundreds or thousands of unmanageable rules to maintain. I have written about this previously in a paper entitled “Do you really need a Taxonomy?” and I recommend that anyone contemplating managing emails first reads this paper.

The message is as simple as simple can be; keep it simple or it won’t work!

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