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Retain Emails Or Risk Fines

The need for organizations to retain emails will continue in 2012, regardless of business size. On the heels of December news that Citigroup agreed to a $750,000 (USD) civil fine for not retaining millions of emails, it is a sober reminder that losing email is not an option for regulated industries. While Citigroup should receive some kudos for self-reporting its loss (which occurred during an upgrade of its email archiving system between October 2008 and December 2009) the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) still determined the incident to be inexcusable.

I recently heard that Atos, one of Europe’s largest technology companies, plans to phase out email between colleagues over the next three years. The company’s more than 75,000 employees will be required to communicate with each other via instant messaging and a Facebook-style interface instead. This is the first I have heard of such a policy, but I doubt that 2012 will see a lot of this type of action. The company hopes this plan will increase productivity because the volume of email, which the company estimates to be up to 20 hours worth of worktime, is reportedly not translating to useful time spent. Of course email from outside the company will still be floating around. The idea is being met with both criticism and accolades.

“The goal of reducing the amount of data that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives is noble,” comments Nick Mehta, CEO of LiveOffice, a cloud-based email archiving company. “However, the idea of moving to a new communication mechanism is simply shifting the problem. The problem is that there is too much information and too much communication. This data explosion will follow you to whatever communication media you use.”

I have to agree with Mehta. Email is not going away. In fact, a new study published by Return Path, Inc. makes the point that while desktop and webmail use might be decreasing, a top (and increasing) use of smartphones is access to email. The study takes a look at the impact mobile is having on email viewing. (Note that webmail might have decreased by 11% according to the study, but it was still found to be the dominant platform (44%) for email access.)

In the study, Return Path researchers make this prediction: “Email is an important business tool, so some combination of desktop and webmail use is likely to remain dominant well into 2012. But the number of people who opt for smartphones increases each quarter, meaning email viewership on these devices will continue to grow. Add in the iPad and we predict that mobile viewership number will tick up by a measurable amount by the end of 2012.”

With email use firmly in play, the need to archive continues,no matter where it is accessed. As if to punctuate the news of Citigroup, Osterman Research and ArcMail just published a timely report called “The Critical Importance of Archiving in the Financial Services Industry.” (The paper is offered at no cost if you register with ArcMail.) It is filled with valuable takeaways for financial services firms as well as organizations in other markets, and provides three key steps that businesses can take to address compliance and retention obligations:

  1. Every company, regardless of its size, must develop policies focused on the retention of its business records.
  2. It is critical to deploy archiving technology that can satisfy content retention policies for email messages and their attachments, as well as potentially other types of content such as files, social media posts, instant messaging conversations and other data.
  3. Choose an archiving system that can integrate with and satisfy other organizational requirements, such as making content available in a format that will satisfy regulators, external legal counsel and others.

Osterman notes early in the paper that “Some financial services firms do not archive their email and other electronic content because of their misperception that it is less expensive to pay the fines associated with non-compliance. That said, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many firms fail to meet their retention obligations because few decision makers are willing to admit publicly that they are making a conscious decision to violate federal and other requirements for preservation of content. However, given the financial meltdown that began in late 2008, we can surmise with almost absolute certainty that government and industry oversight of the financial services sector in the context of data retention will become more stringent and more difficult over the next several years, and that archiving systems will play an even more important role in helping financial services firms to comply with their regulatory and legal obligations.”

The paper offers a list of current compliance requirements and steps to address compliance.

“The question facing financial services firms today is no longer whether to retain data, but how much to retain and how to go about getting the job done right,” says Rory Welch, CEO of ArcMail.

Although Welch is focusing on the financial services industry, others can benefit from best practices and adopt what makes the most sense for their industry types. With many compliance rules pertaining to data about employee and customers, most all businesses have some component of the need to retain email.

One thing we know for sure about 2012, email is not going away. Despite attempts like the one being planned by Atos. Like many, Mehta believes, “Previous attempts to move off of email (IM, Google Wave, etc.) have by and large been failures. The problem is the work culture—not the communication system.” However it turns out, it will be an interesting case study to follow.

Whether it is email, IM, or social media, data retention is indeed a challenge, due in large part to the sheer volume that passes through each messaging technology and the variety available. But a constant among all of it is the need to manage the medium regardless of type and find a reliable archiving technology that works for you.

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