Mission Critical

Users have a love-hate relationship with e-mail. Enterprises increasingly recognize the mission-critical character of their e-mail systems, but the significance of e-mail as the primary vehicle for knowledge exchange often is not appreciated.

E-mail has undergone a transition from a useful application, installed at a departmental level, to a core element of enterprise IT infrastructure which supports mission-critical business processes, both inside the enterprise and between enterprises. These mission-critical processes may be formalized business activities, but are more often informal, human interactions that keep enterprises functioning.

In a 1999 Gartner Dataquest survey of IT managers in large enterprises, 46 per cent placed e-mail among the top 10 mission-critical systems (“mission-critical” systems were defined as highly available systems or as services that are designed to ensure a predetermined level of system availability). More striking yet, when managers were asked to identify the most-critical systems, e-mail ranked fifth. Few people in the corporate world would disagree with this assessment when they consider their own reliance on e-mail for communication, including staying in touch with their work teams. Many would say e-mail is their primary source of communication and collaboration with peers, managers and even social contacts – although in most cases, this value is not reflected in formally reported metrics.

E-mail has a central role, beyond communication and coordination, which has yet to be recognized in most enterprises: it is the forum for a high percentage of an enterprise’s knowledge exchange. Estimates of the total knowledge exchange occurring via e-mail run as high as 75 per cent. Furthermore, this knowledge is often high-quality insight, generated on a timely basis. E-mail is often the best resource for capturing tacit knowledge. The interchange between people via e-mail is robust – it can occur ad hoc and over relatively short time spans. The reach and range of these discussions, and the diversity of opinions and challenges they encompass, mean that much e-mail content has high knowledge value.

People solve problems, develop ideas, communicate status, test the feasibility of assertions and conduct many other meaningful tasks using e-mail as their communication medium. Within Gartner, for example, e-mail threads are often the source of very creative exchanges. In fact, much of the content in this piece of research grew out of an e-mail thread among several analysts. E-mail is a workhorse of knowledge exchange and task completion.


E-mail is not only a means to exchange information, it is becoming increasingly important as a mechanism underpinning the social fabric of an enterprise. Individuals and communities use e-mail to build relationships, to arrange their meetings and other interactions, and to express concerns or support for ideas. In many environments, e-mail has completely replaced paper memoranda, and is often preferred to telephone conversations. In enterprises that are increasingly dispersed and distributed, e-mail’s role of maintaining social cohesion will become more important, if hard to quantify. In the specific context of knowledge management (KM) objectives, e-mail can enable cultural change and community-building.

E-mail itself also requires cultural change. Users of this new mode of communication have to learn appropriate forms of expression, particularly to convey nuance and humour, and in enterprises where e-mail becomes the dominant mode of political influence, boundaries can shift, often threatening (in reality or perception) the established management order.

This pervasive use of e-mail also generates issues regarding the boundary between personal and corporate use of the messaging resource, the potential for monitoring vs. privacy, and the rights of the employee vs. the enterprise in these regards. Laws, custom and practice vary widely between countries, but any attempt to exploit e-mail as more than a quasi-private form of message exchange, on a par with a telephone conversation, requires sensitivity to these issues. This is particularly true for multinational enterprises where actions (both personal and on behalf of the enterprise) that may be acceptable in one location may be completely unacceptable elsewhere.

In some environments, notably academia, e-mail has always been a mechanism for inter-enterprise communication. In commercial environments, e-mail most often started as a tool for communication inside the enterprise. However, as businesses have opened up access to the Internet, the role of e-mail increasingly extends beyond the enterprise, supporting e-business relationships both in terms of formal inter-business transactions as well as the extended human relationships that underpin e-business links.

But with the increased capability comes increased risk. The content of outgoing mail may need to be monitored to safeguard corporate intellectual assets.

Securities firms in the United States are required to monitor for improper broker-client communications, and the Securities Exchange Commission has ruled that this now applies to e-mail communications as well. More generally, whether an enterprise and its clients have a common understanding of the formality of an e-mail exchange is a critical issue – if one party assumes it is equivalent to a letter and the other to a telephone conversation, then the scope for misunderstanding is considerable.

The importance of e-mail is also reflected in negative ways. E-mail overload is a common complaint among all levels of managers. Spam and virus transmission have become major concerns. Privacy and security receive increasing scrutiny. Exposure to liability for material in e-mail, and forced revelation of e-mail records in litigation, have brought e-mail into the spotlight of legal process. The removal of material to avoid potential embarrassment of course conflicts with retaining records for knowledge mining, but policies where this removal is practiced rarely attempt to discriminate between material that does and does not have long-term value.

In this environment, technology is not leading users, it is lagging behind their needs. E-mail management at the operational level is often inadequate. Support in e-mail products for its role in knowledge exchange is minimal. Archiving and threading mechanisms are primitive. Most e-mail is deleted and never filed, and what is filed is seldom accessed. Search engines (e.g., Verity, Autonomy, Fulcrum and Excalibur) now offer the ability to access e-mail stores, but without the means to capture and represent context, retrieved e-mails are more likely to be incomprehensible fragments than meaningful information – let alone a view of valuable knowledge assets.

Products supporting more effective use of e-mail are emerging in two ways.


While making use of a superabundance of e-mails as a knowledge asset remains a challenge, it is possible to sidestep this issue by using e-mail to solve a different problem: how to keep skill profiles up-to-date. One of the core challenges for KM is how to exploit tacit knowledge.

One approach is to develop procedures to encourage and support the transformation of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, i.e., recording and publishing what is known by key individuals. Another approach, however, is to let the knowledge remain tacit and instead improve the means for identifying and accessing the relevant person, as needed. The difficulty in this case is that those with the need may not know who to contact. Also, conventional mechanisms – such as skill databases – degrade rapidly in environments where knowledge and skills are evolving rapidly, i.e., those where the need is greatest. E-mail authoring provides a good indicator of interest areas, at the very least, and thus a profile generated from analysis of an individual’s e-mail output can serve as a useful indicator of skills.

Tacit Knowledge Systems’ KnowledgeMail uses this approach to maintain a profile of users from their e-mail, allowing queries to be made against the profile database to find people with a relevant skill set. It also enables the sender of e-mail to use the community – as represented by a common interest in its profiles – as a distribution list for the e-mail. KnowledgeMail recognizes the challenge in moving e-mail from a personal communication medium to an enterprise management tool by allowing individual users to control what elements of their profiles are published and permitting the initial contact to be made without revealing the identity of those whose profiles match a query. It also allows the recipient to decline a request. Such consideration of privacy and sensitivity to individuals’ control over their communication is supportive of the cultural change implied in KM.


Although e-mail can spread messages far and wide, when these messages are received, they are typically managed at a purely individual level. Each user decides what to keep and where to store it in a personal file system that most users would probably not feel proud to share. One path to better exploitation of e-mail as a knowledge resource is to provide a more structured framework for management of e-mails. This would enable ephemeral material to be separated more easily from that of lasting value, and for e-mail archives to be managed as a group resource, rather than being left to each individual.

One vendor pursuing this goal is Intraspect Software. It considers e-mail to be part of the “group memory” for an organization, and it provides a centralized repository for management of e-mails as well as other knowledge sources (e.g., documents and Web pages). This approach can be extended beyond the enterprise to encompass wider communities, such as those involved in business-to-business e-commerce. The products by Intraspect and Tacit Knowledge Systems both illustrate the opportunity to add value to e-mail by providing a context – and thus greater meaning – to the basic message exchange.

E-mail is continuing to transform, becoming a sophisticated message processor that supports groupwork, teamwork and collaboration. Even after it has reached this level of sophistication, however, e-mail will not receive the respect it deserves until enterprises recognize its value in knowledge exchange (as a source of captured tacit knowledge) and view e-mail as the work/social network and the primary forum of enterprise communication. Enterprises that take this enlightened view of e-mail should mine it, support it at a mission-critical level (including service-level guarantees), provide it with strong administration, continually assess the communication needs of the e-mailers, and manage e-mail under privacy policies. Users should be trained not merely in the mechanics of sending and receiving e-mail, but also in its proper management, including etiquette, content policies and archiving.

Bottom Line: Enterprises should recognize the high value of e-mail communications and should maintain their e-mail applications on a par with other mission-critical systems. Further, while enterprises must tread carefully on privacy or trust issues, it is imperative that they capture and leverage the knowledge, creativity and insight that is shared through e-mail.

Kathy Harris is a vice-president and research area director in Gartner’s Research organization. Ms. Harris specializes in knowledge management, business transformation and business process reengineering. She can be reached at kathy.harris@gartner.com.

Simon Hayward is a research director in Gartner’s Research organization. Prior to joining Gartner, he was CTO of TeamWARE Group, a unit of Fujitsu, where he was responsible for developing groupware, workflow and related products for collaborative office working. He can be reached at simon.hayward@gartner.com.