Is banning e-mail a viable way for IT to avoid being crippled by storage costs?

The volume of corporate e-mail is becoming too large for many IT departments. After Phones4U banned the use of internal e-mail,...

The volume of corporate e-mail is becoming too large for many IT departments. After Phones4U banned the use of internal e-mail, will other firms be following suit?

The decision last month by mobile phone retailer Phones 4U to ban the use of internal e-mail across its entire business signalled a renewed determination by companies to clamp down on rising e-mail volumes.

Phones 4U predicted that the e-mail ban would free up three extra hours a day per employee, worth £1m a month in increased productivity.

With 13,000 internal e-mails passing through its system every week, individual e-mail accounts were taking up too much of the IT department's time, the company said. The Phones 4U head office and its stores now communicate by telephone and the company intranet, which is used for ordering equipment and services.

The move, which follows similar smaller-scale e-mail bans at Nestl' Rowntree and Liverpool City Council, is already showing positive results, said Jenna Jensen, marketing manager at Phones 4U.

"It has really helped increase operational efficiency. The people working in the stores are no longer distracted by e-mails," she said.

"The ban also ensured that people take responsibility for their actions. E-mail was being used less for genuine communication and more as a tool for back-covering and buck-passing."

Corporate e-mail volumes are growing relentlessly. Analyst firm Gartner said the volume of e-mail is growing by 50% every year and has forecast a world total of 35 billion e-mails a year by 2005 - with more staff time being soaked up to deal with it.

New regulatory requirements that aim to make companies more financially transparent, such as Sarbanes-Oxley and Basel 2, will also drive up e-mail volumes through long-term data archiving.

Inside the IT department, e-mail growth creates pressure across the board, from servers to storage and support.

"It is storing e-mails, not sending them, that is the big cost driver for IT," said Neil Barton, director of global consulting at benchmarking specialist Compass Management Consulting.

Even so, e-mail accounts for only 2% of the IT costs for each end-user. "On average, IT costs per user are about £10,000 a year. Providing an e-mail mailbox and support can cost about £200 per user a year," Barton said.

E-mail management expert Monica Seeley said the problem of e-mail overload can only be solved with a twin-pronged approach. Users must change the way they use e-mail and the IT department must make checks on usage and set limits.

E-mail abuse falls into two categories: unnecessary and ill-targetted messages and using e-mail as a tool for office politics.

"It is used as a political tool. People CC everyone to cover their backs. It is also used as a catch-all communication method," said Ian Charlesworth, a senior analyst at Butler Group.

E-mails sent in the workplace and any restrictions imposed on staff also have legal implications. For example, some firms have been forced to pay out compensation as a result of libellous e-mails originating from corporate systems.

In April 2001, ex-Schroder Securities employee Julie Bower was awarded almost £1,400,000 after an employment tribunal ruled that she was forced to resign as a result of sex discrimination. A number of internal e-mails were produced as evidence that helped to show that Schroder Securities was guilty.

However, legal experts have warned that policing personal e-mail can be a problem as human rights legislation gives staff the right to privacy at work.

Others have argued that the problem is the result of companies becoming over-reliant on a communication medium that is sometimes ill-suited for the rigours of the business world.

"E-mail has become the cornerstone for corporate communications. That was never the intention but it has happened," said David Smith, an e-mail analyst at Gartner. "What companies need is e-mail usage guidelines."

Companies have a variety of options to reduce e-mail volumes, ranging from a ban on staff sending and receiving personal e-mails to a banning e-mail on certain days.

Option 1: Ban personal e-mails

Banning personal e-mail could cut out up to 80% of e-mail in one stroke, said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, research director at Ovum.

The downside is that the effort of implementing the ban by screening out, for example, internet provider e-mail addresses on the assumption they are personal e-mails may be erroneous.

The amount of time spent policing e-mail traffic could also outweigh any benefits and jeopardise staff relations.

Nevertheless, said Pelz-Sharpe, "Staff need to be told what is acceptable and what is not. Although that is basic management, most companies do not do it."

Ban "reply all". Simply disable this function.

Install a spam filter. "It is a big ticket item, but the cost is only £10 to £20 for each mailbox. And users will thank you for it," said Barton.

Option 2: Set e-mail limits

Limit the number of CCs permitted. Cut out the kneejerk copying frenzy.

Impose a usage hierarchy. "Think carefully before deploying e-mail." said Charlesworth. "For example, blue-collar workers may not need e-mail, whereas in marketing, where people need to bounce ideas off each other, a higher volume of e-mail may be acceptable. It varies from department to department."

Use other means of electronic communication. Instant messaging, unlike e-mail, is presence-aware and can be a better substitute. However, instant messaging may also soon be subject to the same regulatory requirements for archiving, warned Charlesworth.

Do not use e-mail for sending document attachments. Docu-ment management systems and corporate intranets are more efficient ways of making docu-ments available to staff and control of the version of the files used is improved.

Option 3: Use an alternative

Use corporate portals more. Set up intranet team chatrooms and bulletin boards, for staff to use both for business-related and personal messages.

Adopt e-mail-free periods or days. Rather than banning e-mail totally, introduce compromises such as letting staff check and send e-mails at set times of the day. "Like the old document cart that used to come round departments," said one IT director.

E-mail-free days are a similar way of proving to staff they can survive with less e-mail, which can also lead to a revision of bad e-mailing habits.

Option 4: Outsource e-mail

E-mail is not free, so charge for it. "For example, do you want to pay for a 50Mbyte mailbox, or pay extra for one of unlimited size?" said Barton. This can also offer the possibility of some real savings via the outsour-cer's economies of scale, he added.

Whatever method companies choose to police e-mail usage, a change in employee behaviour is needed, which will not be instant.

"You have to reinforce the message all the time," said Seeley. "E-mail is here to stay, but now is the time to start deciding how to manage it like a business tool."

With the corporate cost of e-mail going nowhere but upwards, IT directors will find e-mail management on their agenda until the problem is solved - whatever the cultural obstacles.

What happens if  you ban e-mail?       

Liverpool City Council introduced e-mail-free Wednesdays more than one year ago. 

"Internal e-mails had doubled," said the council's chief executive David Henshaw. "Up to l9,000 staff were sending 100,000 e-mails every day." 

Wednesday e-mails were not banned completely, but anything non-urgent is heavily discouraged, such as an e-mail sent to the whole council looking for a home for a cat.  

"The initial staff reaction was 'How will we cope?'" said Henshaw. "At first, we saw a 50%-70% drop in e-mail on Wednesday, but that has eased a bit to about 30%-40% down. We were concerned that staff would simply send their Wednesday e-mails on Tuesday or Thursday instead, but that did not happen." 

Henshaw said the main aim of the ban was staff communication and time management, rather than reducing costs.  

However, Henshaw does not want to see paper back as a substitute for e-mail. "We have a very ambitious e-government programme," he said. Alternatives to e-mail include posting reports on the intranet, bulletin boards and Blackberry handhelds for senior managers.  Henshaw's advice for those considering an e-mail ban is, "Be brave and give it a go - if it does not work you can turn it back on."

Ten tips for better e-mail usage       

Keep e-mails brief and use meaningful subject lines  

Re-read messages before sending to check for clarity and to make sure they contain nothing that will embarrass the organisation or make it liable  

Understand how to use, and do not mismanage, the CC and BCC functions: only copy in people that really need to receive the message  

Never add an attachment unless it has been specifically requested. Avoid sending them if you can include the text in the main body of the e-mail  

Attach Word documents in rich text format to remove any program scripts and macros, and make sure that the recipient has the application to open the attachment  

Use file compression software for large attachments or send them using an alternative method  

Archive effectively: use folders and only save relevant messages  

Do not overuse the "urgent" flag as it will lose its value  

Never reply to spam  

Use the e-mail program's junk filter, making sure not to set the rules so high so that useful e-mail is lost.

Read more on IT risk management