Corporate tug-of-war around e-mail retention policy

A recent Gartner Inc. study of some 500 business persons has found that e-mail is their preferred mode of communication.

There are three main reasons for this preference, says a Gartner analyst. E-mail produces a written record, provides the ability to communicate asynchronously, and allows connections with multiple people at one time, says Matt Cain, lead e-mail analyst at San Jose-based Gartner Inc., a provider of corporate consultancy services.

While e-mail is the preferred communication channel, this can mean ever-expanding message archives for which companies need to create and enforce retention policies.

“Typically, companies can have whatever e-mail policies they want as long as they comply with external regulations,” says Cain.

Often, he says, businesses have to deal with diverse and even conflicting internal approaches to handling message archives.

E-mail retention policies are always going to be a compromise when different stakeholders express opposing concerns and requirements, he says.

Cain says four parties – each of which has a different perspective on e-mail retention – influence corporate policy in this regard: First, there’s the end-user who wants to store everything forever because it makes for a great written record of transactions and conversations.

Second, the corporate counsel prefers to get rid of as much e-mail as possible to cut costs of potential e-discovery. According to Cain, corporate counsel in the U.S. often consider e-mail more of a liability than an asset.

Third, the IT department wants to keep a smaller archive to minimize the labour of backup and recovery. And fourth, compliance officers want to preserve e-mails to ensure consistent regulatory compliance. “Leaving a written record can in some cases be a corporate counsel’s nightmare,” says Cain.

The same applies to the IT department, which would cringe at the prospect of having to back-up enormous PST files. However, compliance officers would want to selectively keep some documentation they feel may be relevant.

There is definitely an increase in e-mail as a medium for communication for business documentation, agrees George Goodall, research analyst of London-based Info-tech Research group.

“The biggest crunch we see in the history of using e-mail is the problem of e-mail growth and how to manage that,” he says.

The crunch began around five or six years ago, says Goodall, when not only did the number of mailboxes increase, but the quantity and size of e-mails grew as well.

E-mail content that was once text now includes PDF, video, and graphics files. While there may be conflicting views surrounding e-mail retention within a company, requirements around regulatory compliance and litigation tend to eventually influence corporate policy, he says.

Dealing with litigation is trickier, says Goodall, because it means creating policies around content that’s theoretically discoverable in the event of a lawsuit. “It’s not a regulation you can prepare for. It’s about maintaining a state of preparedness.”

In litigation, a company may have to show the court the policies it has in place around retention time, for instance, and how those policies are actually enforced. Proactively distinguishing between transitory (cover letter) and business communications (transaction or invoice), for instance, is a good practice, says Goodall. Employees tend to embed these two types of documents within an e-mail. However, he says a transactional system could be setup to produce business communications as PDF files that can be attached to an e-mail, and later easily identified and archived.

“It’s a slightly more involved process for the individual user. But it exposes how ugly e-mail can be from a legal perspective,” says Goodall.

While this is true, it’s not a greater burden than having to backup enormous archives that have been indiscriminately saved from the beginning of time. If it exists, it’s discoverable, says Goodall. “And the question becomes, how many skeletons are hanging out in those backups.”

When litigation suddenly strikes a company that’s sitting on a massive e-document archive, outsourcing the e-discovery process may be the optimum route, says Cain. E-discovery, he says, can be quite resource a resource drain when done on premises. “By outsourcing, you’re freeing up your labour.”

Other reasons for outsourcing may include a lack of internal searching capabilities, or a desire to avoid a complex process that can’t be handled by local IT.

Cain says the demand for companies that specialize in the e-discovery process has definitely increased, given there’s more e-discovering that’s going on these days.

But while a company may try to do everything possible to ensure relevant documentation does not go wayward, it can never have a foolproof system, says Goodall. “There are going to be gaps. You’re not going to capture everything.”

Litigation aside, a preference for e-mail as a mode of business communications can necessitate greater attention to spam and other abusive messages, says David Greer, product evangelist of Vancouver-based MailChannels Inc.

That attention can be time consuming at the very least, he says. “There’s a heavy productivity loss of having people go through their junk folder every day. It’s a big problem.”

Spam filters generally reduce abusive mail, however, given regulatory compliance and litigation requirements, there can exist a paradox where companies might fear losing legitimate mail in the filtering process, says Greer. To that end, he says, the MailChannels Traffic Control product doesn’t block incoming messages; rather it slows down traffic from identified spam sources.

At the very worst, legitimate mail will get slowed down, but not lost. In addition, spammers will tire of waiting for their mail to go through and opt to focus on a different target altogether.

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