Managing e-mail overload

With inboxes full to bursting, companies are finally looking at the question of e-mail best practice. Jane Dudman spoke to five...

With inboxes full to bursting, companies are finally looking at the question of e-mail best practice. Jane Dudman spoke to five IT directors about their approach

E-mail is causing real logjams in corporate IT systems. The figures are stark: one recent survey - for Essential Computing by the Research Group - estimates that in a company with 150 e-mail users, managing e-mail is the equivalent of one full-time job. The real problem is that much of this overhead is hidden: 44% of people are in charge of deleting and managing their own e-mail, with no central control over whether their actions meet legal requirements. Until recently e-mail was not being handled as a corporate responsibility. But that is changing rapidly.

As e-mail levels continue to grow, IT managers are attempting to rein in this ad-hoc approach to e-mail management. Some experts are urging them to look at ways to solve the problem, and at the role of e-mail in the business as a whole.

"People are beginning to think much more carefully about how they handle e-mail," says Monica Seeley, founder of Mesmo Consultancy and author of a recent book on the subject. "But most people are starting at the technical end. They know everyone is overloaded with e-mail and that e-mail is not being organised properly, so the knee-jerk reaction is to look at different technical strategies. Most people have chosen their e-mail software with little thought about what they want to achieve with e-mail within the business."

Seeley says there are signs that, as a result of e-mail overload, companies are finally beginning to look at the whole question of e-mail best practice and how to use e-mail as a business tool.

There are many options for IT managers who want to tackle their e-mail overload, but there is no single right answer to the problem.

Store e-mail data

Supermarket group Somerfield has 59,000 staff and generates about 70,000 e-mails a week. With almost all of the retailer's commercial agreements with suppliers now agreed electronically, it is vital for the company to maintain accurate records of all e-mail-based communications to protect the business against any potential legal disputes. In addition to this, Somerfield also needed to deal with the sheer volume of e-mail staff effectively.

"If we keep only paper-based contracts, we are losing 90% of our records," points out Colin Clark, corporate cost audit manager at Somerfield. "This was a critical business problem we needed to address."

One thing the company did not want to do was to simply increase the size of its e-mail system. "We did not want to just throw more servers at the problem," says Gordon Scholes, the retailer's IT director. "That would be treating the symptom, not the cause, and would not help us index or retrieve individual e-mails."

Somerfield has bought KVS' Enterprise Vault e-mail management and archiving system, which provides structured storage and retrieval capabilities for e-mail files. Enterprise Vault captures all e-mails and stores them on a central NT server. The system works with any storage system, including magnetic and optical discs and storage area network systems, and can support multiple Exchange servers. It leaves a small stub in the Exchange e-mail system, reducing e-mail storage requirements, and providing a fully searchable centralised store of information.

This has already proved its worth at Somerfield, when one of the company's managers was able to find, in seconds, within Enterprise Vault an e-mail for which he had been searching for three months. "This is invaluable," comments Clark. "The big benefit to us is the corporate governance aspect. This system means we are protected; we have a full record of all our communications."

The biggest drawback has been the realisation, following implementation of the new system, that a more thorough e-mail strategy needed to be put in place. "We realised that our external e-mail usage was bigger than we had ever expected and this has forced us to look at our overall policy," says Clark.

Curb e-mail use

Insurance firm Talbot Underwriting has 100 staff, all of whom use e-mail as an integral part of their daily business operations. This has pushed e-mail traffic up to about 4,000 messages a day. The real problem is not the daily e-mail traffic, however, but the number of e-mails being stored, with users holding up to three gigabytes of data in their inboxes.

"When we first realised we had a problem, we did the obvious things," says David Watson, group IT manager at Talbot Underwriting. "We had to limit the size of the server, because it was filling up and the fuller it got, the harder it was to maintain. This was creating serious business exposure for us, because e-mails these days are the lifeblood of our business."

Watson and his team decided on a common strategy in this situation: they imposed limits on users. "We imposed mailbox quotas," he says. Users received e-mail notifications telling them their inboxes were filling up and that they would not be able to send or receive any more e-messagges until they had deleted some of their existing stored e-mails. The standard storage allowed per user was 2.5Gbytes.

How effective has the policy been?

"It does not work," admits Watson. Users do not delete e-mails, they just store them away in their own personal archives. This is not a structured approach to storage; it is not a reliable form of back-up and it makes it difficult for users to find files they may want to look at later. In addition, if a member of staff leaves, there is no guarantee they will not have deleted their files, so there is no overall corporate control of the storage. "It is not a manageable approach if you need e-mails retrieved quickly," he says. "Imposing quotas is not really a business strategy. We did it as a short-term solution."

Talbot Underwriting has now installed an e-mail archiving system that has met all its needs.

Shift traffic to other systems

One way around e-mail overload is to shift users into other ways of working, such as using groupware and collaborative software systems. This has been technically possible for some time, but changing ingrained patterns of working has proved hard.

Premier Oil, which has a turnover of £263m, began implementing Open Text's Livelink collaborative software three years ago to make it easier for staff across the company to share information. It was also looking at the growing problem of e-mail. "The problem we have with e-mail is not just overload, but knowledge management," says Hugh Banister, Premier Oil's global IS manager.

Growing use of e-mail across the company has meant valuable business information and contractual details being stored in inaccessible e-mails, rather than being available to the company as a whole. "We were just haemorrhaging information," comments Banister.

Premier Oil plans to stem this loss by automatically loading e-mails with important business content into the Livelink system. But this process has not been easy. Open Text does not provide an automatic link between Outlook and Livelink. This link is now being provided by a third party, and the system is being tested before being rolled out.

Banister is confident that this aspect of the system will work well but he is having less success in persuading users to shift from e-mail to using the collaborative features in Livelink. "People are used to e-mail," he says. "If they want to start a conversation, they tend to do it by firing off an e-mail, even though the technology is there to run threaded conversations within Livelink." One way to try to alter people's habits is by changing the Livelink interface, so that it looks more like Outlook. "That would provide the best of both worlds," says Banister.

Outsource e-mail management

Many firms do not have the internal resources or the inclination to run their own e-mail system. Financial services firm Cedef, which has 25 staff in London and a further 50 in Switzerland, used to run its own e-mail, but found the ageing system was becoming an increasing burden on its limited internal IT resources.

Cedef opted to outsource its e-mail and has chosen a service from Netscalibur, explains Rehuel Loots, Cedef's network manager. "The main reason for outsourcing our e-mail was for security and back-up," says Loots. With only a single systems administrator working in Cedef's London office, the firm felt outsourcing would provide a reliable service, heading off the problem of how to maintain cover when that person was sick or on holiday.

Netscalibur provides its Managed Exchange 2000 service over a virtual private network, with 128-bit security, which Cedef feels provides a higher level of security than similar services from other suppliers. The system enables Cedef to add new users and domain names when necessary, and while there are some changes to the interface now that users access their e-mail via a web page, Cedef says these changes are very slight and have not resulted in any disruption to users.

In terms of the service itself, Cedef is making no significant financial savings from its move to an outsourced service, says Loots. "The cost is almost the same and in the long run may even be a little bit more," he comments. "But we would need someone on-site to run our e-mail, so the outsourced service is actually cheaper."

The company pays £15 a month per user for its e-mail service, which has now been running since October 2002. There were a few initial problems, mainly with Cedef's own set-up, such as the way the wireless area network connection was set up in the Swiss office, which had to be sorted out.

The service has resulted in some changes. "If there are files with very large attachments, the download can be a bit slower than before," says Loots. "But there is no significant impact." A bigger issue has been user sign-on. "Previously, users just opened their e-mail and authentication was done on our local network. But now users have to type in their password every time they open Outlook. In the beginning they did complain about that a bit but it is more secure."

Sidestep e-mail altogether

One of the biggest problems with e-mail is that it gets used for all kinds of business communications, some of which could be done differently. One company using different technologies to sidestep e-mail is online security software firm Entegrity. With its head office in California and offices on the US east coast and in Windsor, Berkshire, Entegrity ran into problems using e-mail as one of its main internal communications tools.

"Sometimes you just need to ask a colleague a quick question. Although e-mail may be the obvious way to do that, not only do you then get an inbox full of e-mails - most of which are no more than two lines long - but it can also mean delays," says Ian Hendry, director of Entegrity's European operation.

The company has turned to instant messaging. It uses AOL's internet-based Instant Messenger as a way to keep information flowing internally, as well as to customers and partners. "One of our partners might be on the phone to their customer and they need to check something like licence details," he says. "To do that, they type the query on the screen and get an instant answer."

There are many different instant messaging systems. Entegrity opted for the AOL system because it has business ties with the internet giant. The software, which is available as a standalone system, is free.

There are drawbacks. Unlike e-mail, nothing is saved, so there is no audit trail, although it is possible to do a screensave. But Hendry says this is not the point of instant messaging. "It is not enormously secure, but we see this as a just a quick way to answer questions that are not business sensitive," he says.

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