Managing E-Mail: Working toward an Effective Solution

Article excerpt

Think about it. How often do you check your e-mail? How many messages do you send? Now multiply that by the total number of people in your organization. Did you need a calculator? Everyday organizations transmit millions of messages both internally and externally through electronic messaging systems. Some messages are simple - a reminder to attend the meeting at ten o'clock or an invitation to a co-worker's retirement party. But more and more messages carry substantial amounts of information and serve as official records of the organization.

When you get a piece of e-mail that you believe is important, what do you do with it? Do you print it out? Do you save it in a special folder in your e-mail account? What does your organization's e-mail policy tell you to do? Most institutions that have considered the need to retain information from e-mail generally instruct employees to print important messages and add them to the paper file. Is this really the best solution? Will it allow your organization to retain and maintain its institutional knowledge? Will it provide appropriate levels of access and security? Will it help your company or organization defend itself in the case of litigation?

As a records management professional, no doubt you already realize the variety of problems to be solved before e-mail records management is as common as paper records management systems. For instance, most people treat e-mail as a casual, information medium, more like a phone call than a memo or report. How will you as the organization's records manager make your coworkers understand that they are creating records? How will you persuade your colleagues to sort through their e-mail and classify important messages as records? How will these email messages be captured into a records management system for proper retention? What should happen to attachments and hot-links to websites? How will you handle data migration? Most importantly, how will you convince senior management to provide the resources and support for solving the e-mail records management problem?

For one month, nine researchers in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Texas at Austin attempted to define the state-of-the-art in sound records management and archival practice as applied to Internet-based e-mail messages. We investigated the ways that industry analysts, private and public sectors, professional associations, universities and research institutions, and vendors implement e-mail records management principles from both a technological and a policy perspective. The results of our research include basic legal issues surrounding e-mail records management, technological concerns, the results of our research, and a synthesis of the current state-of the-art with recommendations for the future.

FUNDAMENTAL LEGAL ISSUES

People typically use e-mail as a quick and convenient way to engage in a wide variety of business activities, including discussion and revision of policies and procedures, circulation of draft documents and meeting minutes, distribution of work assignments and schedules, and actual business transactions. While many organizations have enthusiastically embraced the opportunities provided by e-mail, the vast majority overlook the fact that when e-mail messages contain evidence of business decisions, actions, and transactions, they become documents which are subject to the same legal requirements, restrictions, and standards as any record produced in any form or medium.

The implications of the failure to incorporate e-mail into a records management program are most clearly seen in litigation. The 1970 amendment to Rule 34 and the more recent Rule 26(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that lists of all relevant paper and electronic documents, in a useable form, be transferred from one party to another early in the process of litigation (Jessen and Shear). If e-mail documents concerning a subject of litigation exist, whether in print, on someone's hard drive or network system, or on backup tapes after the messages have supposedly been deleted, they are subject to discovery and must be produced upon request. …