How many of you have been faced with the challenge of producing information for an audit or litigation? Under the United States Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) and in many countries around the world, any and all electronic information is subject to discovery. This includes email, which, for many organizations, is still unmanaged or not managed as well as it could be. In reviewing various case summaries involving e-discovery, I have found email is one of the consistent areas of weakness and potential cause of losing a case or being charged with spoliation, which in legal terms could be defined as the intentional or negligent destruction of evidence. Email in relation to litigation and audits is considered evidence, so if it is not managed properly, you are at risk. If you are asked to find relevant email, could you, and if you do, have you found it all? How would you know?
Part of the problem is that many firms, if they use a centralized repository for storing email — which is a whole other topic — feel email is a content type rather than format and, as such, choose to lump this communication into a single category called email. Then they rely on search functions in the hope of finding all of the relevant information for someone to sort through and determine its validity. Think of the cost and effort this takes due to the simple fact that the email is not classified properly. The question that always comes to mind is one of value. If email has a business value and is considered to be part of the corporate memory or knowledge base, why is it not managed in the same way other content is managed with governance, classification and associated metadata?
The concept of classification is a simple one. You classify information and content assets to organize it in ways it can be found. If it can be found, it can then be used by others who have a similar interest or need, thus, reducing the amount of redundancy through repurposing. It is also a way you can ensure consistency in the way you manage your information, and since it is consistent, you are sure that when called upon to produce it, it is complete and accurate. Email needs to be classified and managed properly — the same as any other content or information. The method or technology you choose to bring this information into the corporate repository may not be as critical as the structure and labels you use. Email can be automatically or manually captured and stored in a repository but that does not address how it will be tagged, which, in my view, is one of the more important aspect of email management.
Think about the body of the email in your organization. You could say it is correspondence in the same way you might call a letter in the physical world correspondence. That would be a classification tag or label designating the content type. This could be further defined in that you could identify the type of correspondence. For example, the email might be related to sales activity, in which case you would classify it as sales correspondence, or perhaps, it is associated to a procurement process, in which case you may choose to classify it as vendor or supplier correspondence. The point being that you are organizing these emails, this content, in a more efficient way that aligns to the business itself and increasing findability and accuracy. When called upon to produce all information and content related to vendor or supplier transactions, you will find the emails as well. It means no more searching and sorting through hundreds of thousands of emails to find those that are relevant.
In my view, email must be included as part of an organization's overall content inventory and, as such, treated in the same way. It must be captured, classified, stored and managed properly with appropriate security and retention controls. Email is a format the same as a Word document or spreadsheet. What determines content type is the actual content contained within the email. Proper classification of email should be a priority and become part of the content management practice. Employees need to be trained on how to identify what content type it is and provided the tools to ensure it is stored and managed properly.
BOB LARRIVEE [email@example.com] is director and industry advisor with AIIM International where he lectures and teaches about best practices in information and process management. Follow him on Twitter @BobLarrivee.