Managing email is one of my biggest nightmares as a records manager.  It’s everywhere, we all use it every day, often not very cleverly.  It’s somehow personal – and yet at work it’s corporate too.  It’s informal, easy to get the wrong end of the stick and put someone’s back up (witness the flame wars on listservs as a prime example!).  And yet many organisations rely on taking decisions at every level via email which are then difficult to retrieve, disseminate and sometimes justify.

A colleague posted on twitter that he’d recently reduced a decade’s worth of emails to 180,000 (!!).  There comes a point when the cost of appraising email outweighs the cost of just storing it.  But just storing it all in a big bucket or in an idiosyncratic series of folders also has costs in retrieval not to mention the costs of backing it up, the power to run the server etc.  Far better to manage it from the outset?

Unfortunately email arrived on people’s PCs and became an indispensable habit by stealth.  How many times do we use email as a default communication mechanism when actually picking up the phone or walking across the office or using an instant messaging tool would do the job instead?   Quotas kept a lid on things to a certain extent although personal folder “archives” on hard drives are another kind of problem of course!  There are a lot of people whose exploding inboxes crept up on them – I know a colleague who has over 1,500 items in her inbox alone.  She’s completely overwhelmed by it, and is completely in love with my old friend Justin Case.

A lot of thoughtful discussion pieces have been written as well as hot air and hot ink has expended on managing email by archivists and records managers from our particular perspectives.  However I’m not aware of too many practical tools or approaches that have been publicised about how something might be DONE.  (Please add comments to inform me of all the ones I’ve missed!)

We’re just implementing something that might scratch the surface a bit.  It’s a button that sits in your outlook mailbox and allows you to save emails direct to the electronic document & records management system (edrms) – you can see it in the top-right of this picture:

Outlook plug-in button

Yes, this is my real mailbox.

I’m hoping as we roll it out across the University that at the very least email communications with students will be managed better.  Often small decisions are taken via email (eg. ‘can I have a deadline extension because I have a medical problem that…’ ‘yes you can have a 3 week extension’).  This then becomes part of the context to a subsequent wider issue affecting the student’s studies and potentially also their degree – eg. a medical problem escalates, the student isn’t able to follow the official extenuating circumstances process, and the evidence in mitigation of the whole situation is in a number of mailboxes including those of staff on sabbatical leave during the window for extenuating circumstances to be considered.

Filing stuff is boring (sometimes it’s satisfying but mostly boring), so I firmly believe the simpler and quicker we can make it for people the better.  Most people want to do the right thing for their organisation.  Perhaps one day we will have feasible automated records management tools that will take away or reduce the need for people to file or do something with the records they create or access, but in the meantime I’m happy to have taken a baby step in the right direction.

One of the other projects in the JISC impact calculator pilot round is a project at the University of Aberdeen looking at email management – it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.


7 thoughts on “Email…

  1. well Sarah, that’s quite a tease – where or what does your magic button connect to – was this an off the shelf EDRM system you bought or something developed in-house?

  2. Hi Sarah, maybe I should make some time to come and see you to be convinced that wisdom is a help not a hinderance to a MAC user (who uses Microsoft products as little as possible) like me, unfortunately all my experiences with it so far have not been positive. He’s hoping you can sell me it’s good points.

    • I’ll try! when the system was chosen back in 2004/5 (ie well before my time!!!) I don’t think usage by MAC users even featured on the horizon. We have to focus on staff standard desktop (ie PCs) so I’m very aware MAC users are perhaps not getting what they need – but unless I hear about specific, can’t do much about it…
      I’d really appreciate a 10 mins “MAC for dummies” – maybe after institutional audit…

  3. Some comments received via twitter direct messages:

    will there be statistics for emails filed with/without using the button?
    (answer: yes)

    Also need to monitor for multiple copies of messages sent to everyone – “detrimental if easy filing means lots more indiscriminate copies. Waste of time filing as well as GBytes”.

    Thanks for the comments – I’ll post a follow-up in a couple of months once the feature has been available for a bit.

  4. Pingback: Tweetiquette « M Sarah Wickham

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