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Email: Are you simply testing fate?

Email: Are you simply testing fate?

It’s a bit like one of those pop bands that rose to fame in the 1980s. Email used to be great but these days it’s simply annoying.

I’m sure there are some who will recall the lyrics from Cat Stevens’ song Remember the Days of the Old School Yard. After all, that was when we had ‘simplicity’ and it was way before email. If you recall, business communicated by letters, telephone and of course - in the 1980s – fax machines were as fashionable as fluffy dice!

I wish I could say email made things simple. I wish I could hum Cat Stevens’ song as I walk the halls of New Zealand businesses. You see, the problem is, just like Victor Frankenstein, we have created a monster. Email is growing faster than anyone could have possibly imagined. IDC declared earlier this year 31 billion emails were sent daily worldwide in 2002 (I’m not sure who had to count them all). What’s worse – they expect it to double by 2006.

Email used to be a tool. Today, it is a critical business application. If you don’t believe me – try turning it off for one day, or two – or maybe three. How popular would you be? What is more of an issue is the recognition that email is a business document and as such, it needs to fall within some sort of retention policy, just like a paper document.

The Electronic Transactions Act 2002 received the royal assent on 17 October 2002. It will come into full force following an order of council that, according to a conversation I had with the Ministry of Economic Development (MED) on 15 May 2003, they expect to happen by July this year.

So, what effect will this new Electronic Transactions Act have on us? There are some who believe the guidelines to be published by the MED will not specifically address the issue of email or, for that matter, outline the requirements for business. Rather, its recommendations will only focus on the government sector and the rest of us will have to rely on the courts for clarification (nice thought!). Regardless of that, the legislation is relatively clear, and most legal professionals I have consulted highlight the following relevant areas for consideration when it comes to email:

Integrity

Accessibility

Reliability

Section 17 of the Act addresses the critical issue of integrity of information. Email systems must not alter the information contained within an email and, in fact, it would be extremely prudent to ensure users are also not able to alter any email that they receive. It is not uncommon to find businesses have a quota system in place on mail accounts, requiring users to delete email once a pre-determined threshold is reached. If the messages concerned are business-related, surely they should be protected – if not from an intellectual property perspective, then at least from a compliance perspective?

Section 27 of the Act reiterates the concern of integrity as well as highlighting reliability. We must preserve the origin and destination of electronic communication (email) and the time when it was sent and received. That communication also must be readily accessible so as to be usable for subsequent reference. There goes the idea of archive folders. You may be surprised to learn most businesses do not have an email retention policy or provide adequate systems ensuring relevant business email, sent or received, is protected in the same manner as any other company data.

The good news is, there are options – including smarter ways to harness the power of email. However, to simply sit still and pretend the email issue will go away is not a career-enhancing move.

In April 2003, Gartner provided an appropriate summary: “In today’s highly regulated and litigious world, an enterprise that fails to manage email as a record is testing fate.”

Vaughan Nankivell, MNZIM, is an industry consultant and business analyst, specialised in enterprise content management.

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