Do companies really know how to value their emails?

Do companies really know how to value their emails? Do they treat them like other assets or is it that because they cannot value them, they do not store them or manage them correctly?  I was struck by this question in reading Steve Bailey’s interesting paper on the failure of email management. He argues (to simplify his excellent argument) that records management field has failed to manage emails. In effect, records managers should just let workers keep all their emails if they want because trying to change the way they work will not succeed.  Therefore, the best thing to do is to work around them.

The desire to keep everything was linked to an interesting news story on the BBC about the self-storage craze:

My argument is that self-storage makes sense in ways that reveal why email management and records management do not work.  To put it simply, organisations do not place a value on their emails, records management, or the storage required to retain them. As a result, they do not manage them.

Consider the following in comparing self-storage craze and the desire to keep all our emails.  First, self-storage makes sense from a financial point of view. The sofa or the old LP record is a fixed cost. It is an asset. By contrast, the emails, as such, are not an asset in the same way.  For the most part, their value is fluid and relative to their context. In that sense their half-life is quite short.  Who really needs 50 emails from 5 years ago?  To what end?  Whatever they referred to is long completed or covered by other more permanent records.

Second, the self-storage “craze”, as such, makes cultural sense in an age of austerity.  My parents grew up in the US Great Depression so they have a different view to retaining items like “old sofas”.  The cultural argument is related to the economic argument, which is the third point.

Third, sofas and others assets retain value either as sunk cost or at least a replacement costs.  The sunk cost is the £200 spent 5 years ago for a sofa.  The replacement cost is the £1000 you would need to replace the sofa today. Therefore, if the item still works and is of use, then there is value to it.  If it were money, would people throw it away?

Fourth, if nothing else, the item has a barter or emotional value. A sofa can be handed down or donated. Does anyone donate or barter emails? How many people bequeath their emails?  At the same time, most people who inherit a job delete or archive the previous resident’s material. It is rare that the successor comes in and picks up the place in the same way.

Fifth, the item could be sold in a future state.  If there was a pure market, one that self-cleared, the sofa could be sold and one could be bought when needed. However, life (even in the days of eBay) is not that neat and clean.  After all no one buys disposable clothing or disposable plates for all of their needs. Data seems to be backwards looking or a residual of a previous transaction.  In many ways, emails are, for lack of a better word, the shadow of a transaction and not the transaction itself.

By contrast, information does not have that same value. However, there are two different ways to look at information value. One is to look at from a compliance view, I need this email because it is a record and without it, we face a Data Protection Act issue or an E-Discovery issue.  Second, they can contain a business opportunity, which will offer value. There are ideas or something of value within them and that is why they need to be retained.  However, in comparison to sofas and records, the emails are less likely to hold value. However, that does raise a question about how we measure the value of the information we hold.

Perhaps we need a metric to measure the value of the information within the emails (and not worrying about them as emails as such) and thereby find a way to decide our approach to them.  If we can do that, then we can see the value in them and have a definite reason to keep them.

In the end, the organisation can keep everything, without challenging the employees to change the way they work, or it can put a value on the email’s content and manage them in line with how it manages other assets.  My guess is that organisations will opt for the latter and not the former.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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