Metered email - a transitional approach to managing email records

Email has been (and remains) the biggest thorn in the side of recordkeepers in modern organisations. For most people it consists of a mish-mash of routine work correspondence, significant collaboration efforts, records of critical decisions and sometimes even legally binding agreements – along with funny JPGs, invitations to lunch, and records of deeply personal non-work events.

This makes a email a serious and ongoing risk for organisations, potentially vital but also risky to access after staff members leave due to privacy concerns. This excellent article by James Lapping looks at the issue in detail and concludes:

If we can only access e-mail accounts in response to overriding imperatives such as access to information requests, e-discovery requests and the need to defend or prosecute any legal case we might be involved in ... we will continue to fail to meet the day-to-day record keeping needs of our colleagues when they start a new job, and when they need to look back at the work of former colleagues ...

[If we could] provide an individual with routine access to the e-mail account of their predecessor, then we [could also] provide access to [that] e-mail account to historians or other researchers further down the line. The two challenges are inextricably linked.

[Organisational email] archives function as a murky sub-conscious of the organisation, full of toxic secrets, inaccessible to the organisation in its normal day to day functioning, and they pose a huge, ongoing, information governance risk.

James assumes that email archives are inevitable. However, there are some people who are seriously working to change the culture in their organisations to move away from email – Luis Suarez is probably the best known. In his fifth year progress report, Luis writes about the three remaining situations where he sees corporate email use as warranted. To paraphrase, they are:

  1. Identification – when confirming your identity for a service
  2. Notification – particularly Calendaring and Scheduling of events
  3. 1:1 confidential, sensitive exchanges – particularly HR, Legal, and Financial matters

Suarez' conclusions are worth reproducing in full:

However, beyond those three use cases, there isn’t an excuse anymore to move the vast majority of our interactions into more open social, collaborative, knowledge sharing spaces: digital tools. [Suarez' emphasis]

So we know that extended email use is risky from a governance and legal perspective, and we know that recordkeeping of emails is notoriously bad (81% of organisations surveyed by NSW Records agreed that records with 'corporate value' are only stored in personal email accounts), and there are digital tools available to replace email.

Unfortunately email is also the quickest way to achieve many, many types of collaborative tasks. It just is. No other tool can so robustly connect an unlimited set of people across an unlimited set of organisations with almost unlimited differences in technology expertise and availability in a many-to-many exchange. I've fallen back into using email for this purpose myself and I know all the arguments against it!

For known, repeated business processes, it is reasonable to implement a system that bypasses the Outlook inbox in favour of custom queues, document automation, and workflows (think CRM-style systems). But this still leaves a wide swathe of ad-hoc, corporate business that isn't being captured.

So what can be done? Organisations should be doing what any culture does when we find individually rewarding behaviours with culturally-detrimental consequences: Set limits. And enforce those limits. Ensure that everyone has the same obligations except where a culturally-respected exception can be made.

We put a speed limit on cars. Why not create a meter limiting the number of email recipients that can be addressed by a user in a day? If people could only write to 20 people in a day, suddenly everyone would be far more thoughtful about hitting the "Send" button. It would instantly curb the worst excesses of email and encourage people to find suitable alternatives.

We don't even have to be that draconian. Make refilling email credits an on-demand act, where users simply visit a web form and read a statement reminding them of their obligations to use email correctly before clicking "OK". Even if the whole process takes less than a minute, it would still be enough of a disincentive to act as a powerful driver of behavioural change. Perhaps a useful next step would be to re-credit the cost of the email if a sent email was CC'ed into an appropriate electronic records file.

De-emphasising email won't completely remove the problem of records sent or received via email being captured into appropriate EDRMS systems. And I acknowledge that the risk is that the most intransigent might simply switch to their personal webmail accounts, and that cases of special pleading would need to be dealt with fairly ruthlessly to avoid undermining the concept.

But with an appropriate strategy, executive level-support, and supported tools to fill the void as people moved away from email, I do believe the use of email metering would provide a robust individual incentive to change behavior that a corporate policy will not.

So vendors and IT pros, what do you think? How could we implement metering on top of existing email systems?

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