Mail trained

Nigel Cannings, managing director, Kinomi Limited discusses bringing order and structure to your email.

Only 30 per cent of companies can recover an email that is more than a month old. A surprising statistic, you might think, but many might be quite surprised it isn't a lot worse.

The reason for this lack of access to emails by companies is that the majority are stored locally on employees' hard drives in a way that only the owner of the mailbox can understand. And, sometimes even they are left in a quandary when it comes to finding that elusive email about an important project decision!

Those companies that do have copies of the emails are not always better placed to find useful information either. After all, storing information is great if you know how to get to the useful stuff.

Most companies just store emails as they come into the organization and, therefore, without any filing structure or referencing.

To find anything of importance would still take a good deal of time. That's always assuming that it is known where the information came from, to whom it was sent and what the essence of the communication might be.

After all, if you don't know exactly what you are looking for in the first place, finding it can be an uphill struggle at best and an impossible task at worst.

There's no disputing that email is a great facilitator but it comes at a cost that is not always financial. It's so popular that the sheer volume of traffic means that users can barely answer what is coming in the door, let alone file it. Perhaps a new approach is called for.

Email overload

Email overload is becoming so last year. The most current executives now have RSS overload as well, subscribing in haste, and, most definitely, repenting at leisure. Except that the whole leisure thing has all but disappeared, with 37 per cent of employees spending more time in front of an open email client than they do sleeping.

This transformation to our working lives has happened in just a few short years. And yet, are we better off now than we were back then? Isn't it true that the more email we receive, the less we seem to know. We don't have the time to read it all, and attachments that warrant attention all too often languish unread.

One excruciatingly obvious thing about the explosion of email is how all of our business intelligence is getting locked into email boxes. Perhaps we could take a lesson from yesteryear when businesses relied heavily on the secretarial pool to keep companies on track.

Then, documents were copied to all of the people that needed them before being filed in the correct folder, in the correct place, where they were accessible in a matter of seconds, usually. And if the person who wrote the memo left the company, the file lived on. That was collaborative working, the old fashioned way.

Email, on the other hand, is a selfish tool. We guard our email preciously, and do not like other people to lay their hands on it. All of that valuable information about our customers and our companies is stuck in our own inboxes, usually on our own desktop.

Putting in structure

All is not lost. There is a solution to this. Spam is, to all intents and purposes, dead, if you install the right tools on your desktop, or on your server. A few years ago, it was predicted that spam would finish off email. And yet it hasn't. We have found a way of using one technology to manage another.

So, what we need is a technological way of sharing knowledge, storing knowledge, and extracting knowledge.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to produce email collaboration tools offering ways of centralizing email relating to particular groups or topics. But they have suffered from a number of fundamental flaws.

They tend to be application specific and, to make matters worse, they don't, in many cases, enable communication outside of the company. Information can be shared but within the confines of the organization which can be limiting for many people who work with suppliers and colleagues in various locations and businesses.

An ability to collaborate easily, effectively and securely across corporate firewalls is essential in the business world of today.

So, any solution has to be totally platform independent, and it has to be flexible enough to accommodate users from inside or outside a company. That probably means it is browser based, and capable of being remotely hosted.

Storage

Then there is the issue of storing knowledge. There is no point in storing all corporate knowledge on individual PCs and laptops. However, by the same token, there is no point in simply transferring individual mailboxes to a back-up server.

This will merely result in a duplicate being created of an unusable records store. It is unusable because it is just a list of individual emails that are unstructured.

What is needed is a central store of all email that is accessible, useful, and relevant. Ideally, there is one big corporate email storage pot broken down into groups of email, just like the old centralized paper filing system.

Finding the knowledge

Finally, the emphasis turns to extracting the knowledge from the store of emails. Simply performing a Google search is not the way forward.

This approach will often produce a long list of results that is largely irrelevant and confusing, and it presupposes that the user know what they are looking for in the first place.

Let's turn knowledge extraction on its head. Imagine a system that extracts all of the data from emails as they pass through (dates, names, urls, attachments etc) and separately identifies them with hyperlinks. And then the system starts to 'read' the email, finding themes and topics that recur, and are relevant to a group of email users.

This is the answer to the growing email burden on companies today. A web portal where users can look at their email, and see all of the new themes and topics, names and dates that have emerged from the flow of email.

This is all about getting the computer to do the hard work for the users and provide them with information to help them to do their jobs more efficiently.

Receiving a preview of the content of emails coming into the company or a group within the company can only help users to prioritize their workload and to weed out the emails that can wait until later or be deleted immediately.

Self-organizing, self-searching email. Now that's a leap forward!

Nigel Cannings is managing director of Kinomi.

This article first appeared in March 2006 ITNOWextra