Saving the message

With e-mail now practically the lifeblood of most government offices, agency records managers are straining to cope with the overwhelming number of these electronic messages. More than 30 billion e-mail messages are sent daily worldwide, according to one estimate, and government agencies no doubt send and receive their fair share of this total.

The challenge for records managers arises when such messages are used to "transact real business," making them subject to the same regulatory and legal requirements as those for archiving and retaining other official records, according to Betsy Fanning, director of standards and content development at the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM) International.

To boost their e-mail management efforts, some agencies are starting to craft automation strategies and use commercial software applications to help them sort, store and index critical e-mail messages in a secure, searchable archive repository.

But no silver bullets exist to solve the problem. Automated systems can ease the burden, but only after organizations have done their homework and formulated formal retention policies that can be added to the software.

That may be part of the reason why so few organizations have e-mail management initiatives and why most efforts are still in "an early stage," Fanning said.

"We are at the point where most people are focusing on just complying with the regulations," said Jonathan Penn, an analyst with Giga Information Group Inc. What that means, he said, is that organizations opt to hold onto all their e-mail documents, which is easier than coming up with the policies that can weed out unneeded ones.

For agencies that are ready to try an automated system, there are many e-mail archiving tools offered by a growing roster of records management and storage systems vendors, such as Documentum Inc., IBM Corp., IXOS Software Inc., KVS Inc., Legato Systems Inc. and Storage Technology Corp.

The tools differ in focus and capabilities, but generally offer users the option of archiving e-mail from the server or on the user side from individual mailboxes.

For example, a systems administrator can set a program to automatically archive files according to criteria such as "a high or low watermark or the age of e-mail and associated attachments," or individual users can drag and drop e-mail messages from their mailboxes into archive folders, said Matthew Suffoletto, IXOS' president and chief executive officer.

Perhaps most common are the so-called hybrid systems, which combine automated message handling at the server level with individual user input. For example, when users send messages, the system could automatically ask if the messages are records and then process them later at the server level using the appropriate retention policies.

That's how the system works at the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, according to Bob Wells, the office's chief information officer. When employees there send an e-mail, a template pops up on screen requiring them to identify the message as a federal record or not and then indicate the type of record it is from a list of categories.

Those categories are tied to records disposition schedules so that the documents are not only moved to an archive repository, but also are assigned life spans. The template includes a checkoff item to separate documents relating to litigation the organization may be involved in, Wells said.

The office uses IBM's Lotus Notes for e-mail and Documentum's TruArc records management system to archive and classify those messages.

The city of Orlando, Fla., also involves employees in e-mail housekeeping, but doesn't need to make such fine distinctions among the types of e-mail messages. The city, which uses Notes and Domino from IBM's Lotus Software for its e-mail, relies on its employees to manage their mailboxes and keep them under a 100M limit, said John Matelski, the city's deputy CIO. If they do not do this, Orlando has a procedure in place to begin automatically archiving their e-mail messages from the server.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Once e-mail messages are moved from personal mailboxes to an archive repository, most systems allow them to be searched by keyword and retrieved using header information such as subject, sender or receiver.

Orlando employees can search e-mail texts but not attachments, Matelski said. There are commercial applications available that can search the attachment, however.

For example, Amsterdam-based ZyLAB Technologies BV offers technology that archives the original e-mail files and then allows for a search of e-mail header, text and attachment information, said Johannes Scholtes, ZyLAB's president and CEO.

But making e-mail messages easily searchable can be a touchy subject for some organizations. The Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management uses tools from Autonomy Inc. to index and make its Web portal searchable, but not its e-mail messages, Wells said.

"People are uncomfortable putting [their e-mail] into the public domain," he said.

In a survey AIIM International and Cohasset Associates Inc. conducted late last year, 39 percent of the public- and private-sector records managers who responded said their organizations "did not have a formal e-mail policy," said Cohasset's president, Robert Williams.

Some people are still trying to determine what information constitutes a record, conceded Tim Shinkle, records industry director at Documentum.

Vendors including Documentum have adapted to this reality, offering phased-in solutions that enable organizations to archive e-mail en masse while hammering out the policies that can begin to fine-tune that process.

McKenna is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.

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