Cloud email – what’s happening with the information? #IAM_2014 May 29, 2014

A trumpet's flareEmail has become a ubiquitous business tool in the last 20 years. It has become the default tool for purposes too numerous to list: announcements, distributing documents, sales and customer service interactions, among other uses. Email’s versatility means it is used in all areas of an organisation’s business, which means that it may hold information about any aspect of an organisation. It’s also increasingly a part of the daily life of private citizens: in Denmark, the e-Government strategy mandates that all citizens are to have digital post boxes by November 2014.

In our experience, organisations have had ineffective email management strategies which have led to the accumulation of large volumes of email in email archives and servers. While tools have been developed to classify email within archives for accessibility and e-discovery purposes, we have yet to hear of an example of an organisation which has been able to conduct automated, analytical and value-appropriate destruction of email from its email servers or email archives.

How are we dealing with email at the moment?

Current approaches rely on categorising emails according to organisational functions or a classification schema. There is some automation, but current approaches require a lot of manual actions on the part of individual staff. Meg Phillips, external affairs liaison at the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has explained that “the scale of electronic records being created requires more individual decisions than users can be reasonably expected to process in a manual way.” This is a challenge which the NSW public sector is also going to face, with our 2013 government recordkeeping survey showing that only 21% of public offices have automated workflows for capturing email. The survey also showed that the existing policies and processes are not effective for a large number of organisations. While 87% of public offices have information management policies and procedures for email, and 80% offer training, 49% do not do any monitoring of their email management compliance requirements, and a further 24% only monitor key staff and high-risk processes.

Why are governments moving to cloud email?

Cloud email is part of a wider industry shift, where emerging, innovative software companies tend to be providers of cloud-based services. In response, traditional IT companies are shifting their weight behind investment in the growing cloud market. While traditional solutions will continue to be offered in the short-medium term, even Microsoft has been pushing cloud aggressively. ICT research firm Gartner has observed that Microsoft is beginning to include cloud-exclusive features within its Office 365 productivity suite: “we’re starting to see signs that Microsoft Corp. is putting priority on cloud only”.

Organisations adopting cloud email appreciate the fact that cloud solutions are continuously updated, providing the latest technology. They also appreciate that it has tight integration with collaboration tools. The US government has made significant progress in implementing cloud computing solutions. Agencies including NARA have migrated from on-premise email infrastructure to cloud services. NARA have migrated their 4500 staff to Gmail, and in the process they have simultaneously implemented their Capstone approach to manage retention and disposal of emails. While governments in other countries have focused on the legal implications of having an offshore jurisdiction storing their information, US government agencies such as NARA have been able to focus on ensuring that its information management requirements were built in to the solution from the outset.

NARA’s capstone approach and cloud email

The NARA implementation of cloud email has been simplified by the Capstone email approach. Under this approach, all email of certain staff is retained permanently, unless manually specified. Email of other staff is retained temporarily for 7 years, unless otherwise manually specified. In the Gmail implementation at NARA, users are not required to manually generate metadata.

Specific benefits identified in NARA’s implementation include:

  • Retaining integration with ZLUA, NARAs digital records management tool, while users only have to use intuitive Gmail functionality to trigger/modify RM activities by ZLUA.
  • Provides the outcome where user’s productivity is maximised, while important records are also managed appropriately.
  • Records management of emails is automated, but assiduous users have the option of specifying the value of their emails in more detail.

Potential challenges

The implementation approach does not require users to categorise emails, and defaults to categorising the retention of emails against their job positions under the capstone approach. If most users left the tools to automate the retention decisions, then a significant proportion of email captured would be ephemeral or unimportant. The volume of information which could be potentially captured and require storage for 7 years could still be overwhelming. Separately, there is a parallel ‘journaling’ process, which captures all emails in in case they are required for legal purposes. The information the NARA has made public about its implementation does not document how long this information will need to be retained for.

There are further potential problems of data scale. NARA’s cloud email service has a capacity of 25 Gigabytes per person. While their Unified Archive records management tool extracts email records every 90 days, it leaves a ‘convenience copy’ in place. NARA has a theoretical capacity for 112.5 Terabytes of email in the cloud, which is an enormous volume of information to assure and protect.

A wider issue is the fact that cloud email does not necessarily address the problem of email being inappropriately used for every business process simply because it is ubiquitous and familiar. Many approaches that we hear people talking about are addressing the end-result of overuse of email. Of course, users have gravitated to email because it is convenient. Changing this attitude will require the emergence of tools that are more appealing for users than email currently is, so that email is used less, or at least stops growing. Those solutions will offer part of the solution, but will also pose a whole new set of information management challenges.

Future posts

State Records NSW is currently researching approaches and developing guidance for migration of email to cloud services. We intend to post regularly over the coming months.


photo by: wolfpix
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