E-mail is one of today's most widely used business tools and most organisations, whatever their size, would find daily life almost impossible without it. But as this way of communicating has become embedded in companies' operations, it has also brought challenges, and managing e-mail is a serious business issue for most small or medium-sized enterprises.
The impact of poorly managed e-mail on business performance has not yet been fully researched, but it could be a big problem. A survey carried out in 2004 for Xerox Global Services shows business performance is being impaired by e-mail overload. According to this survey, managers take an average of 1.5 hours a day, or more than 350 hours a working year, to deal with their e-mail.
One way of tackling the e-mail challenge is to outsource. A wide range of management services is available, from e-mail filtering to fully managed services. Many full e-mail management services are aimed at larger organisations, but suppliers are beginning to tailor such services for smaller businesses.
One of the least recognised challenges of e-mail management within many smaller firms is internal misuse. This can range from negligence over matters such as keeping company information confidential and use of company e-mail for personal communications, to more serious issues such as libel, racial or sexual discrimination and harassment, damage to a company's reputation, misuse of personal information, and even fraud.
E-mail management supplier Clearswift says businesses face a growing threat from inappropriate employee use of corporate e-mail systems. In a survey carried out in March 2005, Clearswift highlighted the problem, including the communication of inappropriate material. "What may once have been considered slightly bawdy banter could mean the company, and the directors personally, end up in very hot water," says the report, E-mail threats in the workplace.
To counter these types of problem, it is vital to have a clear policy about appropriate e-mail use, with sanctions against misuse - and it is important to ensure all employees comply with the policy. E-mail consultancy Mesmo points out that the case of Boeing chief executive Harry Stonecipher, who was forced to resign when e-mails he exchanged with a female employee revealed their affair, underlines the importance of ensuring that everyone in a company understands the need for a robust e-mail usage policy.
SMBs also face the challenge of making sure that all their communications, including e-mail, remain secure. This, too, is becoming a major business issue as larger companies seek reassurance that their e-mails will be securely dealt with, no matter what the size of their business partner.
In April, HSBC warned that banks may be forced to refuse customers access to online banking unless they can show they have adequate firewall and anti-virus protection.
"SMEs often do not have the time, staff or money to put adequate security measures in place. And that presents a threat not just to the SMBs themselves, but also to the third-party organisations with which they communicate," says John Turley, managing director of e-mail specialist Checkbridge, which provides a fully managed spam- and virus-filtering service for internet service providers. Rather than selling directly to SMBs itself, Checkbridge believes it is better for ISPs to provide fully managed e-mail protection for their own customers.
In a survey carried out for Checkbridge, 77% of SMBs agreed that their ISP should be responsible for providing adequate e-mail protection - and most SMBs are willing to pay up to 50% extra for the right service. Of the SMBs surveyed, 61% said they were willing to pay £1 or £2 a month for each of their end-users to add e-mail security to existing services, while 31% would pay more: 8% would pay £5 or more a month per end-user.
"As SMBs start to manage their accounts and suppliers online, it is only a matter of time before suppliers want them to demonstrate that these communications are protected," says Turley, "and technically, ISPs are in an ideal position to protect SMBs."
According to Checkbridge, 69% of SMBs run e-mail filtering in-house, on desktop PCs, but 77% would like to see a suspicious e-mail stopped at the internet level before it reaches the business infrastructure. There are two good reasons for this. Using a managed service shifts responsibility away from the SMB's own staff, which many analysts believe is better for business. The Butler Group report, E-mail management: reducing risk and unlocking value through e-mail lifecycle management, says e-mail management is a critical business issue that must not be dismissed as a technology problem.
The report also highlights the other reason for moving to a managed service, which is the need for companies of all sizes to manage and store their e-mail in a way that complies with legal and regulatory requirements. Employees often do not realise which e-mails need to be retained, says the report, which recommends that companies implement information lifecycle management systems to ensure e-mails are stored in ways most appropriate to their value and age.
This is a complex area. The report points out that, although most firms realise they need to retain e-mails, few realise they also have to be able to retrieve them. "The vast majority of organisations are storing them on tapes from which they cannot then retrieve anything in a reasonable amount of time," says the report.
E-mail management must also comply with laws that often conflict: some regulations, particularly in the financial sector, insist that information must be retained in a way that ensures it cannot be altered, but at the same time, the Data Protection Act means some personal information must be deleted after a certain amount of time.
But probably the most obvious challenge is keeping spam and viruses at bay. Most SMBs have installed firewalls and anti-virus software, but can still feel unprotected. "No one can afford to ignore the growing problems of spam and viruses," says Noy. "For a while, smaller companies have been able to wade through their e-mails and delete the junk, but now the majority of e-mails are a problem and SMBs need help in managing them."
Twin Valley: filtering software is right at home
Twin Valley Homes, based in Blackburn, Lancashire, was formerly the local authority housing department. Four years ago, the company was set up and local council housing stock was transferred to its management. It now employs 250 staff to manage 8,500 homes.
E-mail is an increasingly important business tool, according to Lee Richardson, systems administrator at Twin Valley Homes. "It is a way of doing business for us, as it is for everyone," says Richardson. "If we want something in writing, e-mail is as good as a letter, and for internal use, it gives us speed and efficiency."
Twin Valley Homes has a clear e-mail policy, which all staff have to read and sign. For Richardson, e-mail management is required to protect both the company and its employees. "E-mail management is both a technical and a business issue," he says. "On the technical side, it is more and more difficult to protect our e-mail, while on the business side, we are never going to move away from e-mail now."
As soon as Twin Valley Homes began operating as a separate company and set up its own IT systems, it was clear that it would need e-mail and web-management systems, including anti-virus and spam protection.
It has opted for software from Clearswift to filter both its internet use and its e-mail systems. The software is installed in the company head office and is managed by Richardson.
"When we first set up our systems four years ago, we did not expect the amount of e-mail we are now receiving," he says. "It has been quite a surprise, as has some of the content. We have to be extremely careful about protecting our staff, and we filter out probably about 80% of our e-mail.
"The latest version of the software we are using is very good. You can get it out of the box, install it and just leave it. That is very appealing, as we have only four staff to run our IT systems and there is only me looking after this side of the work. With this software, we can install the policies we want and unwanted mail is filtered out. Equally importantly, we know appropriate e-mail is still being delivered."
Tips for e-mail management
• Ensure a proper e-mail usage strategy is in place and is clear to all staff
• Keep e-mail security up to date
• Have a clear policy on e-mail deletion and storage, and ensure it complies with regulations such as the Data Protection Act
• Do not regard e-mail problems as a technical concern: these days, e-mail is a business issuel Investigate managed e-mail services, which are becoming more common - shop around for the best deal.