Attachment Issues: Email as Records Management


PHOTO: Gideon Tsang // CC BY SA 2.0


Pavlov, the behavioral scientist famous for his classical conditioning, would be proud of the modern-day office worker.

Every time the little envelope icon appears in the corner of our screen, every time we hear the telltale ping announcing the arrival of every new email message, we stop whatever we’re doing and run to check our inbox. reception. We open the email – at least the ones above the scroll line – and close it promising to deal with its contents later. Our inbox numbers hundreds, if not thousands.

These emails contain a mixture of critical business records and private data, as well as casual conversations or sales pitches. Long threads mean multiple copies of the same record with managed or unmanaged attachments by each recipient in the follow-up.

The Truth About Record Retention and Email

Many people don’t realize that their email is an official record and don’t follow good retention practices, filing and storing them properly for the duration of their retention period. (All those records in your inbox. When was the last time you thought, “This email is a record, I need to tag it and file it in our company repository for three years?”)

Probably half of our emails are informal messages that are best handled with a phone call. But among this onslaught are official records, critical business documents that must be preserved and can be retrieved for legal or freedom of information reasons. Most of our records move or live in our email systems, the most common form of business communication. E-mails must therefore be managed.

Related Article: Steps to Mitigate Email Risk

Email was not designed for records management

Email was designed to be a messaging tool – a transit route, not a document management storage station or collaborative meeting place. There are other more effective ways.

  • Cultural sharing: Records in emails are not accessible to all authorized users. I often see situations where all company orders are blocked in a manager’s email account, which means that other employees have to ask the manager every time they want to see an order. An agile and harmonized operation shares knowledge. This means a cultural shift from keeping work in personal devices and email to a community “filing cabinet” in a records or content management repository.
  • Secure: Records contained in or attached to an email are not secure. Common, unencrypted emails are the source of several major breaches recently, leaking millions of emails and causing millions of dollars in damages. Not only is private content compromised, but breaches also harvest metadata that travels with email, revealing information about your recipient, your network, and your computer. There are safer technologies and practices for communicating personal information.
  • Registration system: If you share an email and an attachment with three teammates, there are now four copies of the email and its attached document. Each recipient downloads the document and edits its copy if necessary. Not only does this clutter the system, but it makes finding the right version tedious and stressful. I’ve spoken to a number of clients who have used words like “nightmare” and “hell” to describe finding the right version of a client quote or project design when a manager is in holidays. And in extreme cases, clients cannot take vacations due to the risk of office chaos.
  • Liable: In the event of a legal discovery, all copies of a recording, whether in email, file share, voicemail, bank account or hard drive, must be recovered and kept safe from tampering. Emails containing day-to-day operations information should be easy to locate. Those who hold information of long-term value must be protected; those with transient value should be disposed of when no longer needed.
  • Discretion: Email is so familiar, so easy to use that we use it for everything. But it’s worth considering whether email is still the right tool. A good collaboration platform allows a team to participate in a forum without endless and repetitive threads. If the exchange does not need to be registered and managed, a phone call or a team forum may be the best bet.

Related Article: Why Digital Transformation Efforts Should Start with Content Management

Reduce unnecessary emails, manage the ones you have

Handling records through email (as well as in other systems) should be part of the records management program, which includes:

  • Retention policy and schedule: These must be visible, presented in a user-friendly format and actionable.
  • Guidelines and policy for the use of e-mails: Training to help staff discern which emails are official documents and whether they have long-term significance. What metadata should they capture? Who is responsible for keeping the official copy of an email? Who is authorized to access this email? Use emails with links to documents that reside in a shared repository with appropriate access controls, not attachments. Useful tips such as:
    • Open the email and deal with it once, rather than letting the inbox swell, hoping you’ll come back to it.
    • Set aside time each day to deal with emails to minimize distractions.
  • Process: Clear instructions for approving, storing and disposing of emails.
  • A file manager: Someone who is responsible for monitoring program performance and who is a contact for users if they have questions.
  • Records/Content Management Repository: Structured information management service that is findable, discoverable and saved.
  • Collaborative Forum: Provide a digital space where teams can post their conversations without creating long threads.

In a client’s content management project, project managers are very concerned about the reaction to our disabling the ability to attach files to emails. Some senior executives rely solely on emails with attachments and their personal hard drives. But with the average worker who uses up to half their day struggling with email, now is the time to foster a new culture – one where users are more aware of their communication habits and options for a healthier messaging hygiene.

Andrea Malick is a Research Director in the Data and Analytics Practice at Info-Tech, focused on building knowledge of best practices in the field of enterprise information management, with leadership from consulting firm in content management (ECM) and governance.

Andrea has been initiating and leading information management and governance practices for 15 years, in multinational organizations and mid-sized companies.