Wednesday, May 13, 2009

ECM & Email – The End of File Attachments?

I remember a marketing campaign we dreamed up years ago called “No More Attachments”. It was intended to encourage businesses to abandon attaching documents to email messages long before the concept was mainstream. Back then; most organizations weren’t familiar with social networks or storing much online, except for website pages.

Reading a recent AIIM ECM survey reminded me of the misconceived campaign because it suggests that even in 2009 many organizations remain overwhelmed with managing email. While email is certainly one of the most successful applications ever developed, its popularity and ease of use have created serious IT headaches.

For example, 55% of AIIM survey respondents report they have “little or no confidence” that important emails are recorded, complete or recoverable. (That’s just a small improvement compared to the prior year’s results of 62% “non-confidence”). Considering that US courts regard email as an electronic record, that could become an expensive problem should a business find itself involved in litigation.

In the same AIIM survey 27% of respondents also reported that email attachments were “very unmanaged”. I’m not sure which of these statistics scares me more? I suspect some organizations consider documents and files to be vital records, but if they’re being managed and stored as attachments in individual email accounts that could be a recipe for disaster.

Most mid-large sized businesses require employees to remove email from corporate servers or risk having it deleted after a specified period of time (30-90 days usually). If standard archiving rules aren’t supported, employees usually copy files to local folders on their PC, or possibly store them on portable drives or CD’s. What happens to that vital content then? What if the only remaining copy of an important document was a file attachment?

Email is simply a dangerous place to store important documents. Searching for documents in email clients like, Outlook is notoriously difficult. Trying to do the same in Entourage is worse (trust me). I rely on Google desktop to help get me out of these kinds of problems, but even that doesn’t always work. A well-intentioned IT admin recently updated my email identity to better manage my storage. Suddenly, I could not longer access any of the messages or attachments I could find with Google. Loss and theft of portable data storage devices is an even bigger problem.

I’ve learned my lesson to keep all my documents in an online content management system – no matter what they are about. The fact is, I can find them and share them much more easily and my employer can monitor and classify them, if needed as well. Once my files are stored online, I can skip attaching them to messages and use file links instead. These days, that’s really no different from how I share photographs and other content on the web outside of work.

So much is being written about the benefits and challenges of social networking in the enterprise. I think if employees could simply harness their new web collaboration skills to abandon sending file attachments they and their employers would find managing content could be much simpler. For example, replacing file attachments with links to documents stored in a common content repository significantly eases the burden on mail servers. Businesses could actually monitor and control content access more effectively as well.

Of course, this suggestion presumes that everyone has access to content management solutions. Well, if you don’t, here’s a somewhat radical suggestion. Get your own. That’s right; sign up for an ECM service online, like Xythos on Demand, or even use Google Docs. It’s free! I know that’s not probably IT-approved advice, but it will be an improvement, and your team will gain valuable experience using Web 2.0 tools to collaborate.

The better-known services, including Google Apps, Microsoft’s new SaaS version of SharePoint and Xythos on Demand all employ industry standard security methods to ensure your content remains safe. The rest is really up to you and your team. If you follow accepted workplace practices and don’t share content with unknown parties, you should keep out of trouble. Consider the advice you might tell your child about Facebook, and you’ll be OK.

Once you’ve learned how your own team can benefit from sharing document links, try leveraging your experience to convince your organization to adopt its own sanctioned solution. That way the rest of your co-workers can benefit from being able to find and share files more easily. Don’t forget to ask for a solution that scans email messages as well. That way you can take care of two content management problems at once.

Who knows, maybe AIIM’s survey will show some more improvements in this area next year… In the meantime,  if you run into trouble, let me know. If you end up with some good stories to tell, please share those as well! Oh, I almost forgot. Make sure to get your hands on a plug-in, or Xythos Drive for your preferred email client to replace “paper clipping” with a link to your ECM system. It will accelerate your independence from file attachments almost overnight!

Regards, Jim

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