A battle is taking place in companies across the country over email. Many companies want to manage, control, and ultimately delete email. But employees are fighting back by saving all of their email messages, spurning companies’ deletion attempts. The scope of the battle is expanding. It now includes instant messages, voicemail, and other types of electronic messages. The current score: Companies 0, Employees 1.
Email becomes a real business document
The Internet is changing the landscape of corporate record keeping. Email and other types of electronic messages have become the de facto means of business communication. IM, blogging, and twittering are joining email as the always-online, always-in-communication mechanism. Here’s the catch: When email, IM, and other digital forms of communications are sent from a company system, they are considered business documents subject to the same discovery and regulatory controls as paper documents. The courts have long held that the medium of a document is irrelevant-- it’s the content, stupid! Hence, there’s no difference between an email and a paper printout of that same email. They’re all business documents.
Here’s where the problems start for companies. Employees may not view personal email or IM messages sent from a company system as business documents. But the courts and regulators do. When companies enter into litigation or some type of regulatory discovery, they have an obligation to find all documents -- wherever they reside. During a discovery, there is no distinction between "official" records and informal documents. And with discovery comprising at least half or more of the expenses, this explosion of electronic messaging is driving up the cost of litigation. Ouch.
Companies try and delete – underground archival takes off
Stung by expensive discovery costs, many companies have implemented 30- or 60-day email and electronic message deletion policies. Corporate counsel and IT managers usually say, "If we get rid of the message before there is a reasonable anticipation of discovery, we can save time, money, and disk space." Furthermore, the thinking goes, "If we can teach employees how to classify the few ‘official’ emails, all’s well, right?"
Great idea, except for one little problem: It doesn’t work. Based on approximately 100 medium and large companies we’ve analyzed, all businesses with aggressive 30- or 60-day email deletion policies didn’t actually delete messages. All they did was drive underground archival.
Employees will save email messages everywhere -- in offline email PST files, iPods, USB drives, and company share drives. We find that aggressive deletion policies tend to drive messages into the nooks and crannies of the IT storage infrastructure. The email is there, but it just takes more time and effort to find it.
Why do employees save email? There are a number of reasons, but they usually boil down to two: productivity and CYA (cover your ass). Since email is the de facto communication mechanism, it also serves as an effective institutional memory for employees. Need to know what you discussed at the beginning of the quarter? The first place most people look is in their email.
As for CYA, most major decisions are communicated (or at least confirmed) via email. People will save these messages in case they are questioned later -- it’s simple human nature. As powerful as the attempts are for companies to stop or penalize underground archival, equally strong are employee motives to save these messages. The companies are losing.
What works – archiving and training
Although we’ve seen many failed strategies for taming the electronic message beast, businesses shouldn’t give up. This is a solvable problem.
First, companies need to recognize that employees will save email. Instead of trying to aggressively delete email, companies are better off capturing and controlling it, typically through email and IM archival systems.
If email messages are captured in an archival system, the system will permit expiration (deletion) of older email. Hence, companies that capture email are in a better position to control their use and ultimate deletion. Ironically, we’re finding that companies that archive email -- and keep it for a reasonable amount of time to avoid underground archival -- actually accumulate less email than businesses that try to delete email after 60 days.
The second area many companies aren’t taking advantage of is training. Businesses should teach employees that all messages sent or received on a company system are business documents that can be discovered by the company. Employees need to know that their company has a legal and regulatory responsibility to manage its business documents.
It’s also important to reaffirm that every message an employee sends can be reviewed by a manager and the director of human resources. So, if an employee wants to chat up their hot date on Friday night, that’s fine. They’ll just have to use their personal email account. For companies, winning the fight against underground archival is about using what works. You may not be able to control the information beast, but you can create a happy coexistence.
— Mark Diamond, Founder, President, and CEO of Contoural Inc.