How to Succeed at Email Management if You're a Midsized Organization

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Email Management for Midsized Organizations
All companies share a concern in reducing the cost and risk of unmanaged email. While the general approach I’m recommending works for large organizations, midsized organizations -- with terabytes or tens of terabytes rather than hundreds of terabytes of email to manage -- are a different animal.

They have smaller budgets, less risk tolerance and shouldn't be using the same email management products designed for volumes 10 to 100 times larger.

First, a general point -- and then we’ll start digging into the email-specific aspects. Midsized organizations should address email management (EMM) as an individual initiative, but plan and manage the initiative with the help of an overall program framework that includes general ECM, records management and e-discovery.

Addressing EMM as an individual initiative means making progress incrementally, in executable steps that provide benefits and control costs and risk of failure at every step. But each step should be planned and executed with a clear understanding of its place within the framework of a general ECM/RM program. The program framework organizes the individually necessary and jointly sufficient activities for ECM/RM planning and management. These activities include overall strategy, governance and organization, information architecture, process design and implementation, technology architecture and standards, and communication and training.

OK, on to EMM.

Your EMM Policies and Practices: the General Approach

The most important step in EMM is to sort your existing and future email into categories for proper retention and disposition. The most important lesson folks have learned about such sorting is that you should make it simple.

The simplest segmentation of email based on retention period that works for most mid-sized organizations in the early phases of EMM is fairly standard today. Probably the clearest articulation and terminology for it was introduced by the EMM vendor Integro, though the methodology can be used regardless of terminology and without any technology aside from Exchange (and I’m going to assume that most of you use Exchange as the enterprise email system).

Here’s how it works. Divide your email into three classes or virtual “zones”: 1) transient, 2) working and 3) long-term. These may make up 80%, 15% and 5% of email volume, respectively.

  • The primary EMM requirement for transient email is that it should be deleted when no longer needed.
  • The primary EMM requirement for working email is that it can be kept (for a period), and that the employee’s use of it not be disrupted.
  • The primary EMM requirement for long-term email is that it be properly retained and governed.

A mature, optimal target EMM state typically looks like the following:

  • Transient emails are retained 90 days and then either reclassified by the user or automatically deleted from Exchange.
  • Working emails are retained two years and then either reclassified by the user or automatically deleted. (Most email retrievals have trailed off by two years in most organizations.)
  • Working emails are typically retained in the email system (“mixed” with transient emails or segregated into different folders) -- but may be retained in Exchange Personal Archive if desired.
  • Long-term emails are retained in an archive separate from the primary email mailboxes. It may be an Exchange archive or a third party EMM or ECM system.
  • Long-term emails may be all be given the same retention period with little to differentiate them --or they may be assigned more complex ECM and RM metadata, and separated into several different retention periods.
  • The simplest setting is to initially assign long-term email a single long retention period -- e.g., 7 years -- which gets refined and differentiated in later phases of the EMM initiative.

The EMM Defensible Disposition Policy and Plan

You should create and document a Defensible Disposition Policy that provides a specification of what your company intends to achieve with its retention classification and email disposition processes. It is the design specification that states very clearly the objectives that the methodology will fulfill. You (your Legal Department) will be able to defend the company’s actions by pointing at the policy for defensible disposition, and then showing that your organization is following it.

When you've completed the Defensible Disposition Policy, create and document the plans and procedures that will fulfill that policy -- and then start executing. With respect to plans, much of what follows in this section is relevant to the Disposition Plan because this section discusses how you should define your company’s basic email retention and disposition categories, and what happens to each category when its retention period expires. The next sections discuss two other plans -- the Assessment Plan and the Technology Plan.

We suggest that you consider adopting a version of the three virtual zone approach (for transient, working and long term email) but lengthen the retention periods on transient and working email to encourage adoption without defection and facilitate change management. More specifically, here are recommendations first for day-forward EMM and then for historical EMM:

On a go-forward basis, consider doing the following:

Learning Opportunities

  • Automatically purge inboxes after one year. Users should be provided with automatic alerts and notification informing them of the regularly scheduled deletions and showing them a list of the emails scheduled for deletion. Ideally, as the one year deadline approaches, the inboxes should contain only transitory email, but users are given sufficient notification and prompts to reclassify any remaining email as working or long-term. Transient email would be managed by users’ primary mailboxes.
  • Give users the ability to retain working email, with a  three year auto-purge. I’m suggesting that you start with a longer three year period for working email rather than the more optimal two year period. This is to ease the transition. You can then ratchet up the retention period to two years when it’s likely that folks won’t defect. Some organizations use a quota on working email (e.g., one GB), but many companies have eliminated quotas. For these organizations an enforced time-based limit should suffice if there is a chance that reinstalling “quotas” would confuse users and encourage defections.
  • You will have some options for how to implement working email. It could be segregated from transient email and managed by Exchange secondary mailboxes, with each user having a personal archive. Or both transient and working email could be managed “in place” by an appropriate EMM solution. Such a solution would manage the respective one and three year retention periods, while being location agnostic with respect to folders and mailboxes.
  • Provide users with the ability to retain long-term email, with a seven year auto-purge. The same -- or more rigorous -- alerts and instructions can apply when long-term email is approaching its disposition deadline.
  • When a user declares any message as long-term email, more metadata is required for management and findability. This classification information can be minimal in the early phases of your EMM initiative (because getting email into a managed, searchable archive is better than your current state), but it can also include more useful metadata to facilitate day-to-day work, RM and discovery.
  • In the early phases of your company’s EMM and ECM/RM initiatives, the long-term email should be managed by Exchange archives (or an appropriate email archive solution, if you decide to use that instead). But some or all long-term emails are good candidates to move into a more advanced ECM/RM repository, such as the usual suspects -- IBM, EMC, OpenText, Oracle -- or even SharePoint and Alfresco. Keep this option in mind as you develop your broader ECM/RM program.
  • You will also have several options for e-discovery preservation, collection, and other discovery activities. You can implement a segregated preservation repository within Exchange, within an appropriate email archive, within a specialized E-D solution, or within one of the ECM/RM systems that may be used for either long-term email archiving and E-D preservation, or both.

For historical data, consider doing the following:

  • Segment your pile of existing email into transient, working, and long-term classes, with retention periods of one, three and seven years. A good target is to remove everything from that pile that is older than three years. The objective of this target is that anything in email older than three years (the retention period of working email) is either purged or declared a long term record, with associated metadata that will make findability and management easier.
  • The sorting can be done in increments to ease the transition. Break the email ages into six month periods, starting at a suitable back-end date, e.g., all email older than five years, older than four and a half years, four years, three and a half, three. Then every quarter (or other period), expose the oldest remaining chunk for classification and disposition -- either as old transient email to be purged or as long term email to be retained in the archive for seven years.
  • Your EMM administrators should have the flexibility to “safely purge” any email during this process, removing the email from end user access or knowledge but keeping it for a time for safety. The actual purge could lag behind the apparent purge by one period, for example.

The EMM Assessment Plan

Your EMM team, along any relevant technology vendors and consultants, should develop the Assessment Plan and Technology Plan. The Assessment Plan specifies which information and systems you are investigating (typically it's everything in Exchange) and the particular processing rules that are going to be used.

  • The EMM team should create processing rules based on the different types of relevant email file attributes. There are three categories of attributes that can be used for sorting: environmental attributes “around” the file (e.g., location information like business unit of sender or recipients, access controls), file level attributes about the file (e.g., email age, sender, recipient, attachment type), and content attributes within the file (e.g., keywords, character strings, word proximity, word density).
  • The EMM team should then combine these attributes and create sets of rules. Start with the simplest rules that provide the most confidence. Then do multiple passes through the pile, each time using more complex rules on a pile that’s getting successively smaller and smaller.
  • A general rule of thumb is to use simple file level attributes in the first pass. In later passes, go harder and discover against environmental attributes, like location or access controls. Then use content attributes within the files like character strings.
  • The EMM team can run some easy assessment passes first against the entire email pile to help it hone the Assessment Plan and get some quick wins -- like very old emails and “inappropriate” attachment file types.
  • Then the team should prioritize and then work with each business unit to develop a more focused classification approach (e.g., unit or process-specific folders or attributes), and to train the users for both day-forward and historical classification and disposition.

The EMM Technology Plan

The Technology Plan addresses which technologies to use for the assessment and disposition processes. The Technology Plan addresses a general issue and many specific issues. The general issue is which technologies -- vendors and products -- should be used for the assessment and disposition processes.

Often for mid-sized companies it should be some mix of Exchange and appropriate email analysis and archiving tools, or (if you have serious budget constraints) Exchange with a significant use of MS search tools and reporting. The Technology Plan then must address the more specific issues regarding how to implement the Assessment Plan with the selected set of tools.

No matter your company's size, email management is a necessity as a form of risk management and for budgetary reasons. 

Title image courtesy of iprostocks (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more by Richard in his How to Clearly Articulate Your Enterprise Content Management Objectives, Guiding Principles


About the author

Richard Medina

Richard Medina is co-founder and a Principal Consultant at Doculabs. Doculabs is founded on three simple principles: objective recommendations, analysis grounded by benchmark data, and a specialization in content-based applications.