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There is endless talk from some vendors in the IT community about the dangers posed by a whole raft of new regulations introduced by governments and other regulatory bodies in recent years. Businesses are rightly sceptical about some of the messaging coming from vendors, many having fallen, not so long ago, for the Y2K and other scare stories.

Vendors taking this approach could end up looking naïve if they continue with this line of messaging. Managers are not unconcerned about these regulations, but they are only part of a long list of things they have to worry about, which includes brand name protection, customer confidence, employee productivity and competitiveness. Consideration of all these issues will be reflected in the way they govern their businesses and this will influence their IT purchases.

One of the issues that concerns businesses most when it comes to corporate governance is email. Email is by far the most widely used business communications tool, constituting over 60 per cent of both internal and external communications. Some IT managers now estimate that email forms half of all the data that they store and most say it has been increasing rapidly and will continue to do so.

Used well, email can be an efficient communications tool and an important part of the processes that support a business. It is the only truly threaded means of communication, whereby the record of what was said, by whom, to who, when and who else knew about, is maintained. As well as maintaining a detailed record of business communications it is also a lawyer's dream; whether in attack or defence, email is increasingly important in the initiation and resolution of disputes with customers, suppliers and employees.

In the past IT departments have usually limited the amount of email storage allocated to employees quite severely. With the ever-plummeting cost per megabyte of storage media, there is no need to be so stringent. Of course this laxity cannot go completely unchecked. There is no point in storing irrelevant or unwanted email and email records can only help with good governance of businesses, if when it comes to the crunch, relevant material can be easily located and retrieved.

There are two basic steps required to achieve good email management. The first is to cut out junk and other email irrelevant to the business using email filtering software. Many organisations are already doing this - although effectiveness can always be improved. But filtering software is not designed to make the subtle decisions about what email should be kept in order to protect the business against future threats.

The only way to assure future safety is to store all email that is not stopped by filters; however, you do not need to store it for ever. Effective email archiving tools allow rules to be put in place that reflect the requirements of the regulators, the wishes of the business and plain common sense. For example: By default all email shall be kept for three years but for employees of certain departments (e.g. legal) it can be kept for longer; emails with words like "confidential" or "quotation" in their title can also be kept for longer, whist those that contain large attachments of the type ".pdf" or ".ppt" can be kept for less time.

Good archiving means that rules can be put in place and adjusted through time to reflect the way the business is governed, in response to a wide range of factors including those imposed by regulators.

The danger email poses to businesses should not be under-estimated. Whilst a weighty report is likely to have undergone intensive internal review before distribution, an email might get the once-over from a spell checker. The number of times email is playing a role in resolving business and legal disputes is ever increasing and you can be sure that if you cannot find relevant copies of the emails sent and received by your employees, someone else will. Best to be prepared than caught unawares.

Quocirca's report Email and Corporate Governance is available free to Reg readers at www.quocirca.com/report_email_corpgov.htm.

Copyright © 2005,

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