Deleting E-mail, Deleting Knowledge


Recently, I read a discussion by several litigation lawyers describing how a corporate-wide program of e-mail deletion, say on a 30-day or similar basis, would be a good risk management policy for many corporations so that “sensitive” e-mails might be deleted but not in a manner that would be illegal.  Of course, it is completely illegal to learn of a Justice Department investigation, and start hitting the delete key.  With many companies pursuing such policies, or imposing file size limits for mail files, my knowledge management antennae went up – companies are deleting their history and experience.


Just last month, the “Electronic Policies and Practices Survey” – a collaborative effort by the American Management Association, U.S. News & World Report, and the ePolicy Institute – was released.  The study was based on responses to a survey by 435 corporations in the United States.  Among the study’s many findings were issues relating to notification of e-mail monitoring and Net usage, and how many companies actually assume such stances?

Most significantly, the study discussed retention of old e-mail.  Nancy Flynn, the institute’s director, believes that employers should adopt a written policy to delete e-mail after 30 days of transmission or receipt.  The study noted that only 35.4% of companies surveyed have a document retention and deletion policy in place.  Flynn commented that maintaining old e-mails could be costly for two reasons:

1.)  Searching e-mail backups of a year or more could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the event of litigation
2.)  E-mail could, if retained, be a “smoking gun”

Therefore, it is more prudent, the institute maintains, to delete.

There is probably little that goes on within the enterprise that is not, in some manner, shape or form, documented in e-mail.  In fact, e-mail databases become a very important aspect of a company’s Knowledge Management (KM) system, holding the sum of what has been perceived, discovered, and learnt by numerous employees with various points-of-view and differing expertise.  E-mails to external parties have replaced written correspondence, both the kind prepared on an IBM Selectric typewriter with carbon paper and, more recently, the kind stored in Word or WordPerfect files on a network server.  To the best of my knowledge, no one has suggested deleting all Word or WordPerfect files on a monthly basis.

The genesis of e-mail deletion policies has much more to do with the cost of online storage; in the pioneering days of corporate e-mail, when network server space was regularly measured in megabytes, and then hundreds of megabytes, pruning e-mail file size made sense – it was practical only to preserve the most recent e-mail messages.  Although, today, IT managers still worry about managing storage, it is not because space is scarce.

Granted, managing knowledge is a far more ambitious task than even trying to catalogue all that is known.  It is the development of a culture and mechanisms which foster ideas and thoughts, in addition to having a system that is all-knowing about people, places, and things.

However, I cannot imagine flushing out a major component of a firm’s knowledge every 30 or even 60 days.  Simply from personal experience, I regularly find valuable information in my own e-mail files, located  by searching my mail database; sometimes the knowledge is contained in e-mails written or received three or four years ago.  Magnify my experience by a corps of thousands, and it is mind-boggling to think how much valuable knowledge might be destroyed by misguided corporate e-mail managers  every month.


It is, of course, easy for me to warn against bulk e-mail deletions as a KM practitioner; I am not corporate counsel concerned with reducing the risk of litigation.  Lotus Software and Microsoft, as the two dominant players in the enterprise e-mail space, should work with their users – and  knowledge management thought leaders – to develop standards for mail retention and deletion which address the concerns of all parties.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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