The 13th Task of Hercules – email management

Managing email is often subject to contradiction:

1. It is the solution to all problems, saves money, saves time and makes everyone so happy they want to high-five each other.

2. It is a burden that even Hercules would call in sick to avoid.

Obviously both those statements contain a little hyperbole, but in the age of email there aren’t many of us who haven’t come unstuck because someone else has the crucial email stuck in their [inaccessible] inbox. Even here at the Information Management Service we face the many headed Hydra that is the email inbox.

Hercules capturing Cerberus

Yeah, I'll file those emails.. just after I've taken the dog for a walk!

The trick to successful email management is to find a middle ground (preferably closer to the first view than the second!) where your colleagues don’t mind filing things, and don’t see it as an extra thing on the ‘to do’ list. With email this can seem near impossible because it requires the action of moving the email to another location into whatever system or drive you use to share your business information. It all comes down to being able to demonstrate that actively managing email is worthwhile and not at all like the aforementioned Hydra.

“BUT HOW?” you cry… or at least mutter in the generally accepted resignation of information managers the world over. Well there’s a lot to be said for the carrot rather than the stick. Leading with the benefits (e.g. how much faster information can be found across teams). It’s worth finding out how users currently manage emails and understand what they need to enable them to get emails out of inboxes and into shared systems.

Sometimes this will be with aid of tools, but most of the time it’s about motivation. Get users to try out different ways of managing emails to show them that it can be done, and isn’t as bad as it seems. Keeping them engaged will show that you’re trying to help not hinder them.

There is of course the stick of compliance and legislative requirements for those that don’t want to engage. What shape that stick is, how big, and how often it’s used are really dependant on the organisation. But you must be prepared to use it because the results of not being able to find all the emails could be significant.

Clearly only a minority will find filing emails pleasing as an isolated activity. But if an organisation reinforces a negative association with it; users are basically given license to ignore policies and best practice and carry on doing whatever they want.

But the net result of having email managed properly is immeasurable better than the alternative. If you can get users to think positively about managing emails, whilst may be not inclined to high-five each other, they will be significantly more productive and less likely to ignore the inbox in favour of taking Cerberus for a walk


  1. John Craib says:

    Without doubt the pan-organization filing of emails could be helpful, both to the organization and to individuals within it. But this blog entry doesn’t really help me understand what my carrot and my stick might or should look like. And the issue of filing that you address doesn’t even get to the burden of structured titling of the emails when one is obliged to file them; the tagging that is often required; and the sheer time it takes to do, even with up-to-date software like the current release of Sharepoint. With emails running to the many thousands per year for many people, we need something more than policy and vegetables rich in Vitamin C to get to email nirvana.

  2. Tim says:

    Hi John

    Sorry for the delayed response! The carrots and sticks are hard to list definatively in a blog because they vary dependent on not only the public / private sector divide but also the size of an organisation and it’s working culture.

    Overall theough the carrot has to be that people can find things and get on with their day job. A key point about this would be looking at whether the tools available allow users to capture emails effectively – SharePoint out of the box won’t even let you put emails in it without a thrid party add-on tool. SO users will never be able to capture emails corporately even if they wanted to!

  3. David Matthew says:

    In my view it shouldn’t matter whether you are in the private or public sector or how big or small the organisation is finding the information quickly is important, as is spelling of the documents. One only has to look at the Treasury’s report into the recent economic crash as its records management system being “unreliable” to realise the implications for ineffective e-mail management. The problem it seems to me is also how to deal with Freedom of Information requests if e-mails are not filed correctly. One wonders what will happen in the next 20 or so years, given the choice between a paper file or a set of e-mails the paper file wins by a mile.

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