Is email really a good collaboration tool?

Raise your hand if you use email for collaboration and Outlook for information storage.

You’re not alone – the majority of people use email for communications, of course (it’s the de facto standard), but also as a collaboration tool. Microsoft Outlook is now also the accidental storage system – a vast amount of an organisation’s knowledge resides in individual users’ inboxes. The reality though is that it’s an inhibitor, not abettor, of teamwork and information sharing; and highly unreliable and inefficient for storage as the content of those records are not accessible to others and therefore meaningless to the business.

Exacerbating this issue is that email traffic is also driven by other forms of communication – such as via mobile devices and apps, and in different formats and file sizes. So, managing and collating the information, records and knowledge residing in users’ Microsoft inboxes is exceedingly challenging. Furthermore, due to increased mobile and remote working, strict limits placed by IT departments on the size of the inbox and file transfers, alongside the imposition (and rightly so) of stringent corporate security policies preventing them from using external tools (e.g. Dropbox), collaboration across an organisation is greatly hindered. Even where proprietary, third party information sharing tools are allowed, these applications are not integrated with the core systems, making seamless, intuitive collaboration and data sharing difficult to achieve.

Email is for one-to-one communication, not information management

Email is primarily designed for communications between individuals and is therefore unstructured. When used for information management and collaboration, it falls short as there’s no additional information available to help identify which emails are important and what subjects/topics/matters they relate to. This may ring a bell – you send an email on a particular subject, which ends up as discussion on a completely different topic with an entirely different set of individuals. Or your in-box fills with messages headed ‘Re:Re:Re:’ in the subject line due to an important email discussion and debate to support decision making on a particular business issue. Unless the valuable information within those emails is drawn out, the knowledge or reusable content in them is either lost or simply sits in users’ inbox ineffectually.

Many people I know habitually ‘copy’ themselves on the emails they send so that they can view the complete thread of the conversation in one list. This is just one example of the madness forced upon us by the limitations of email. The IT-enforced inbox size restriction worsens the situation. This often leads to people inadvertently deleting important emails or creating multiple archive PST files in order to adhere to these IT policies. Both these ‘solutions’ result in the loss or misplacement of important information being intensified.

It’s essential to preserve the ‘value’ of email messages. This can be done by keeping emails together with other inter-related documents in a unified electronic file across the organisation in an email and document management system. This approach helps protect the ‘context’ of the discussions, which over time becomes ‘corporate knowledge’. This knowledge is too important to be placed in "cold storage" or then accidentally deleted.

Additionally, without an effective email management system, proving compliance becomes a problem for businesses as enforcing content-based email retention and deletion policies is impossible. Organisations then are forced to choose between paying to store an ever-rising, uncontrollable volume of emails, or deleting emails according to date or size alone. Emails are also easily lost when employees leave the organisation as their in-boxes are deleted, thus erasing vital traces of their work in progress as well as their historical activities.

There’s a business rationale for enterprise-grade email and document management systems

Email management must be a core part of any organisation’s document management strategy. This approach transforms email from being an isolated knowledge source that is visible only to the people it is addressed to, into a knowledge asset and resource that users in any location can use to capture best practices and reuse. Overtime the productivity benefits it delivers are tangible and valuable.

It’s worth noting that email and document management is also the critical step towards a ‘less paper’ office that is high up on enterprises’ agenda. A new study by Xerox claims that by 2018 – only nine per cent of business processes will rely on paper. That’s could be less than only 730 days away!

Roy Russell, CEO, Ascertus Limited

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Peshkova