Is This the End for Email?

By Mike Frazier | Director, Information Governance, TERIS

Is This the End of EmailI attended a conference recently at which a panel of experts was asked to give predictions for information governance in the year 2020. Many of their responses were thought-provoking and they left me with more questions than answers related to the “internet of things” and controlling data with an increasingly mobile business environment. Then, while on my flight home, I had an opportunity to read a recent blog post by a colleague, Marc Jenkins at Cicayda, on his blog flipping the GORILLA. In the post, (titled “Say What?”) one of the areas Marc talked about was how Millennials approach communication – that they view email as “a tool for communicating with authority” and see an email address as necessary mainly because it’s required to connect to social media sites where most of their interactions occur.

All of this got me thinking, have we arrived at the beginning of the end for email? Is it a fading technology set to be replaced by more modern and, likely, less centralized communication and information sharing tools that better resemble the future generations of business users?

Here’s some perspective – email is over 20 years old. Hard to believe it’s been that long since email became a mainstream technology. I recall a general consensus in the 1990’s, following email’s emergence, being that email was neat but it would never take hold as the primary business tool. The advent of email, arguably, was the beginning of the end of the paper business world. Businesses still create and use paper documents, but it is certainly not the favored medium for content any longer, nor is snail mail or facsimile the preferred method of communicating and transmitting information. The way we think about communication, information sharing, file storage, and records management has forever changed in the last 20 years of email. Technology is advancing more quickly and is being used more widely than ever before. Paper was king for a long time before email and electronic files dethroned it. They’ve ruled now for the last couple decades. With the speed at which technology is advancing the amount of time atop the hill seems to be shrinking. Shouldn’t we then start preparing for the next information monarch?

Therein lays the problem. We’ve had 20 years to come to terms with email, and we’re still struggling with properly managing it and other electronic files in accordance with legal and regulatory obligations. Many organizations try to manage electronic files as if they were paper records but, let’s be honest; many are still struggling with properly managing those old paper files. When electronic files became commonplace, a lot of organizations stuffed all their paper files into off-site storage in a cave somewhere – they locked the door and threw away the key, along with any knowledge of their contents, and tried to forget about them. Those files are still there and they are a pesky reminder of yesterday’s problems that we have tried to avoid remediating. Even when remediation projects gain momentum, most of the file indices for these old records are woefully inadequate to use as a compass for file retrieval and defensible deletion purposes; and so the momentum wanes and the problem persists.

Now, we’re heading over the precipice into an entirely new generation of content and communication tools to try to manage, with new forms of content coming on line all of the time. Technology is advancing faster than at any point in history. These new forms of information will get added on top of the previous generations of information that we haven’t yet figured out how to holistically manage. It seems likely history will repeat itself and data sitting in traditional on premise file shares, email servers, and business applications will be archived onto storage drives and taken offline; and they’ll take their place alongside the paper files they displaced. Then, they too will become yesterday’s problems; and their relevance and meaning will fade from memory. Without any sort of formal governance program all of the issues and risks associated with this forgotten data, this dark data, will continue to grow unfettered into a problem with the ability to sink its organization. Nevertheless, cleaning up yesterday’s problems isn’t typically thought of as a revenue generator and so businesses will move forward; and those charged with managing information will have to move forward also. On to the next big thing, the next business opportunity, and the next technology.

You may be thinking this all sounds like bluster; and that the likes of mobile messaging, cloud computing, and social media are neat but they’ll never take hold as primary business tools. Let’s not make that (poor) assumption again. Technology will continue to advance and new generations of business users will require the newest tools, and that those tools are delivered to them on demand wherever they go. I may be wrong and email may rule for another 20+ years as the principle business communication tool. The one thing I do know for sure is that data will continue to grow at exponential rates. With a new wave of technology upon us, there’s never been a more pressing time to start governing the data we already have, and start thinking about the data to come. Let’s not find ourselves behind the eight ball again.

So how do we keep up? Where do you start?

There are many places to start – the key is that you actually start. Start putting information governance policies and procedures in place, start seriously talking about your organization’s information issues with your executives, and start to develop a framework within which the organization can help itself manage its growing data. Engage outside consultants to help guide you. Then, start small. Grappling with holistic information governance can be daunting because it touches just about everything in an organization; and by the time you think you have a grasp of it, it will have inevitably changed. So rather than looking at the whole, start by looking at the parts that, when summed, equal the whole. Determine what parts are within your means to manage, which will have an impact on the organizational whole, and start there.

Once you start down the road to effectively and efficiently managing your data, and start to understand the benefits that can be derived from having clean data, you will likely find that cleaning up yesterday’s problems actually can help to generate revenue. Applying analytics to Big Data is generating revenue for organizations all the time. The organizations that are doing it successfully have taken the necessary measures to understand the data they have; and they continually work at making sure they have the highest and most reliable data they can have. Notice I said they continually work at it – this isn’t a “set it and forget it” type initiative. For better or worse, it is always changing. By doing these things those organizations have put themselves in a position to be ready for the next generation of technology and to harness it to help them generate revenue (or benefit society in some manner). They aren’t looking back at yesterday’s problems anymore; they’re looking forward at tomorrow’s opportunities. I can all but guarantee you that those organizations had to start somewhere too. So what part of information governance does your organization want to start with – litigation readiness? Legacy data clean-up? Record retention policies and schedules? Something else entirely? Good, do it. Regardless of what it is, eating the proverbial elephant one bite at a time is a lot easier for an organization to swallow than the whole elephant at once. The key is to start eating…steak sauce anyone?