Sprehe: Saving vs. managing e-mail

The test of a good e-mail archiving system is how efficiently and accurately it retrieves information

Hear Sprehe talk about records management on FCW on the radio

The Securities and Exchange Commission recently fined investment firm Morgan Stanley $15 million for failing to produce tens of thousands of e-mail messages during an SEC investigation. The firm had overwritten many e-mail backup tapes. Morgan Stanley subsequently paid the SEC $10 million more because it failed to maintain and enforce policies to prevent misuse of insider information.

The case is another instance of the widespread mismanagement of e-mail in business and government. Like Morgan Stanley, scores of federal agencies rely on backup tapes to preserve e-mail messages. This penny-wise-and-pound-foolish practice confounds the imagination.

The purpose of backing up data is to recover it in the event of system damage or failure, not just for the sake of storing information. Anyone who has had to retrieve e-mail messages or other documents from backup tapes will attest to how labor-intensive and costly that process is. Using backup tapes as e-mail storage devices is a shortsighted folly, as Morgan Stanley learned.

How often do we need reminders that we save information because we intend to retrieve and use it? If the information is not easily retrievable, why save it at all?

Many agencies now archive e-mail messages. In doing so, agencies should be aware that they are not managing e-mail — they are simply storing it. The test of a good e-mail archiving system is not how cheaply it can store messages but how efficiently and accurately it retrieves information.

Archiving every e-mail message is an example of the tendency to mindlessly store information. We are creating giant information landfills. Agencies need to assess how often people access those vast information stores. If no one is accessing the information, agencies must question why they are storing it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, information storage is not dirt cheap, and needless storage is more wasteful than most agencies realize.

No one has found the silver bullet for e-mail management, which would be an inexpensive and automatic way of saving only the e-mail messages that an agency really needs.

Some products can differentiate e-mail messages and other documents according to business rules, but few agencies have developed the necessary business rules.

In sum, e-mail messages remain a vulnerability for agencies. Not coincidentally, the first documents attorneys attempt to discover in litigation are e-mail messages. Few agencies have adequate protections against e-mail exposure.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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