Why Archiving E-mail Is Important

By Marsha Scheidt and Greg Thibadoux

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FEBRUARY 2005 - Many organizations primarily consider legal issues when setting policy for saving e-mail. While legal precautions are prudent for all, in small to medium-size service organizations, a more relevant reason for saving e-mails is because they often contain crucial information about changes to company policies and procedures not documented elsewhere. Policy is a set of rules and guidelines that determine how a company operates and how the staff will carry out their duties. Often policy and the accompanying rules and procedures are formally stated in manuals, but many companies operate with a combination of written policy and informally adopted procedures and rules. Policies must be continually revised to reflect externally and internally imposed changes.

There are many forms of documentation, such as formal amendments to the policy manual, written internal memos, and letters to clients. But increasingly, e-mail is becoming a primary form of documentation. If relevant e-mails are not stored and made accessible, there will be no primary source documentation for policy changes. It is also important that policy changes documented in e-mail receive the same approvals as other documentation before they can be made policy. To ensure that e-mail can be ultimately used to support policy changes, managers must do the following:

  • Identify relevant e-mail;
  • Provide storage and searching capability for e-mail;
  • Integrate e-mail into policy; and
  • Document changes in written policies.

Identifying Important E-mail

Saving and searching e-mail consumes time and other resources. Saving all e-mail messages would consume massive storage, require lengthy CPU processing time for searching and retrieving messages, and unnecessarily burden systems networks with unimportant traffic. How should an organization set a policy on e-mail to be saved? It is easy to delete trivial messages, but much harder to identify the important e-mail to save and store.

The following is a list of suggestions to help identify important messages that should be saved, suitable for a small CPA firm.

  • Internal operating policies: Definitions of appropriate policies and procedures, and changes to them.
    n Personnel: A manager could identify important e-mails that define changes to travel policy, and then tag that e-mail so that it is archived. Later, a manager could use a search engine to easily retrieve the message and make appropriate changes to the policies and procedures manual.
  • Procurement: The office manager could request that a purchase be made online from the lowest-cost vendor rather than the local store. That e-mail could be the documentation for a new purchasing procedure.
  • Credit: Assume that credit is extended to a client based on a credit-reporting agency’s score of 700. A partner might decide that the score should be lowered to 680, and send an e-mail to the office manager. That e-mail should be saved and included in documentation for a new credit policy.
  • External requirements: Certain governmental or regulatory agencies require e-mail archiving. Current SEC policies require that filers keep securities sales and purchase information for six years.
  • Client correspondence: Managers could identify e-mail that contains important correspondence with clients that relates to policy. If an e-mail contains correspondence with a client about fees for a tax return, it should be archived with the client name as one keyword and the IRS form number as another keyword.
  • Industry-specific keywords: In the process of saving e-mail, many archiving software packages have a list of keywords that identify content important to the particular business (e.g., “working papers” and “IRS Form 1040”).

Storing and Searching E-mail

Most managers use e-mail on a daily basis. If there is a need to find an important change in policy, then it is imperative to easily and quickly search e-mail. To search e-mail, it must first be stored.

Storing e-mail. Storage of e-mail can take many forms, such as on the user’s hard drive, on a server, or on a storage area network (SAN). There are two problems with storage on a user’s hard drive: backups and space. Companies typically do not regularly back up PCs’ hard drives. Second, if e-mail is archived to a hard drive, as with Microsoft Outlook, the space consumed by the e-mail files soon causes slow system processing.

Messages can also be saved on the company’s or the Internet service provider’s (ISP) mail server. This method allows scheduled backups and more storage space. Even though more storage space can be allotted, there is still a limit. Changing ISPs can also present a potential storage problem.

The most advanced method for storing e-mail is through archiving with a SAN. A copy of the e-mail plus any attachments can be sent to a centralized storage network consisting of a reliable, high-capacity, high-speed server that is separate from but seamlessly linked to the user’s network. The network is invisible to users. When a user wants to permanently save the e-mail from a client or coworker, a stub (a small file) can be left in the user’s inbox as a link from the PC’s hard drive to the SAN. This system can be designed with enough storage space to archive e-mails for as long as necessary.

In an “information life-cycle management” system, the SAN consists of a three-tiered layer of storage devices. The highest, state-of-the-art hardware layer is used to store current critical information that may be needed online, real time. This layer is easiest to search but the most expensive tier to operate. Once that information has been processed, specialized software moves the message to a secondary layer, typically an older server. After an appropriate time, the message would be archived to a tape system. Tape is the least expensive tier, but also the hardest to search.

Searching e-mail. The most basic method to search e-mail is to manually browse by date or sender, a tedious and daunting task. Simple keyword searching of messages represents an improvement, but searches will still be limited to the e-mail that has been saved. There is always a risk that storage limitations may lead to an e-mail being deleted and later found to be valuable. Without SAN archiving, there is little hope of finding archived messages. SAN archives can also allow more robust searching of both messages and attachments.

When e-mail is archived to the SAN, copies of the messages could be kept for an appropriate length of time. If vital business processes are involved, management could archive files in perpetuity. SAN e-mail archive solutions can require hardware and software that a company installs itself or rents from an application service provider (ASP). ASPs maintain the hardware and software needed for the technology function offsite, while the user leases the technology while maintaining ownership of the data. For examples of e-mail archiving software, see the Exhibit.

Integrating E-mail and Processes

Most companies have a policies and procedures manual in place. The Sidebar offers advice on developing one.

Once a manual is in place, how should process rules be written to incorporate e-mail messages into the manual? For example, assume that a sales manager sends an e-mail to all salespersons announcing a bonus for sales of the new line of widgets. Transforming this e-mail into a procedure would involve three steps:

  • Stating the message clearly; for example, “The bonus is for sales of the ABC line,” rather than “The bonus is for new customers if they buy only the ABC product.”
  • Limiting each statement to one rule; for example, “The bonus is for sales to new customers,” rather than “The bonus is for sales to new and existing customers that are current in their accounts receivable or that have a good credit rating from a credit bureau.”
  • Writing the procedure in business language; for example, “The bonus is 10% of ABC sales,” rather than “If sales of ABC affect the sales of the current XYZ product line, then the bonus will be 50%–80%, depending on the decrease in XYZ sales.”

E-mail should be written clearly and concisely as a business rule, and then be incorporated into the formal policies and procedures manual.

Updating a Policies and Procedures Manual

For many companies, once a policies and procedures manual is written, it sits on the shelf. If a manager makes adjustments, the changes may be communicated only via e-mail and may never be submitted to the manual.

One solution is to store e-mails concerning daily operations in a file on the SAN, making changes to the manual available to managers who have a “need to know.” The optimal solution is to use the e-mails as documentation and make appropriate changes to the manual.

A more complex solution is to store the manual online, using group software such as Lotus Notes. Then authorized managers have access and the ability to post and make changes to the manual. The
e-mail that supports the policies and procedures manual could be identified and also stored by keyword on the SAN. This online solution could be combined with a system to disseminate real-time financial, operating, and industry information to managers concerning vital processes.

Protecting an Investment

E-mail represents a significant corporate investment in the intellectual property of a company. Many vital procedures may be hidden in an attachment, or changes to processes communicated from one employee to another, without establishing a permanent record. E-mail archiving and permanent documentation can provide a solution that protects this investment.

Marsha Scheidt, DBA, CMA, is a UC Foundation Professor in Accounting and Greg Thibadoux, PhD, is a professor in accounting, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.




















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