However, this doesn’t change the fact that an e-mail is a formal record, just like any other piece of written communication – and therefore subject to the same obligations, duties of care, controls and legislation. Although the IRMS toolkit has a separate section for e-mail management, in the same way that this series is discussing e-mails specifically, the same principles apply as for any other paper or electronic documentation.
In particular, e-mails sent or received by a school are subject to the same Data Protection Act (1998) and Freedom of Information (2000) legislation as any other information held.
Where e-mail is different
Besides the less formal use of e-mail, there are some key points which do set it apart from other documents and records.
An e-mail system comes with the innate ability to store material. It’s very easy to create folders, retain sent messages and so on. Without appropriate policies in place, e-mail can rapidly become an unofficial and unmanaged information repository.
Email volumes can be high and correspondence can involve large groups of people. This can make management of email time-consuming, or even stress-inducing.
The speedy and informal nature of email can lead to unintended consequences. There is far more potential for a recipient to misunderstand a quick e-mail note than would be the case with a carefully crafted letter or a phone call.
The IRMS toolkit contains a number of techniques for addressing the second and third points. These include appropriate communication standards, awareness that an e-mail is a communication like any other (and so deserves the same respect) and also a number of techniques for handling e-mail volume – such as only checking e-mail at set times daily.
Because e-mail records must be treated with the same care as other documents, it is essential that they are filed in the same way and the same retention rules are applied. In practice, this requires both a clear policy for e-mail storage and the tools to do the job efficiently.
The IRMS Toolkit suggests two options: print it out or save it as an electronic file. Both of these methods avoid the e-mail system being used as a long term store, which is sensible, but each presents problems.
Obviously, printing costs money and e-mail is no exception – doubly so when you then get a reply and have to print that e-mail as well. We often undertake archive conversion projects (digitising an archive) where up to half of the documentation is made up of printed e-mails – documents which were digital to start with.
A further hidden cost is that e-mails typically include some colour (signature lines, URLs, addresses) and if you’re not careful this can lead to e-mails being printed as colour documents – even more expensive. Regardless of this, printing should really only be considered if you have to file emails in existing paper files.
The second alternative suggested by the IRMS is to save e-mails to disk, outside of the e-mail system, using the ‘Save As’ function. This has the added benefit that the e-mail will be held together with any attachments – as it should be, to maintain a complete record of the discussion.
However, this also has a drawback; saving files in the standard '.msg' format (if you use Microsoft Outlook) means that you’ll need Outlook to open those files again in the future. This is likely to be fine for a few years but probably not if the record has to be kept for many years – such as until the former pupil has reached 25 or 30 years of age. When capturing the electronic archives of organisations, we have encountered several cases of obsolete file types used with older programs such as WordPerfect (anyone remember it?) which dates back as far as the mid-1990s.
A better solution is to make use of an appropriate Electronic Document Management System (EDMS). A good system will provide the following features which are really key to good e-mail management:
1. Efficient tools for storing e-mails – ideally buttons within the e-mail client or quick links from the computer desktop that enable a user to file an email in the correct place within the EDMS very quickly; i.e.; with minimal mouse clicks and typing.
2. Maintaining integrity of the record – the e-mail and any attachments should be held together.
3. Management of file formats – emails are converted to a long-term archive format, such as PDF/A standard. This will avoid creating a store of information which you can’t read in the future.
And of course, use of an EDMS will bring the same benefits as those enjoyed for scanned information. A proper document classification policy allows retention rules to be implemented and the e-mail is managed for the whole of its relevant lifecycle. In this way, e-mails regarding students are managed according to the rules for that type of content, as are financial records and all the other types of record created by the school.
Whichever option you choose, it’s crucial to enforce a robust records management policy, to ensure that emails are treated in the same way as other document types, and filed outside of the personal inboxes of your employees (Please refer to the first paper in this series).
Because e-mail is an IT application, it is possible to monitor how it is being used and even to automatically create an indexed copy of all e-mail traffic to allow searching and analysis. Doing this provides the school with the capability to protect against a number of risks.
However, it is essential to clearly document how this monitoring will be done and how the information may be used, in order to enable the school to evidence that it has the consent of staff, students and everyone else using the e-mail system. This can be a sensitive subject which introduces an associated ‘Big Brother’ perception. However, it is the best practice and there is an excellent guide from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) as to how to do this in an appropriate and compliant manner.
Another potential use of e-mail monitoring is to tackle cyber-bullying. With a captured archive of e-mail, it is a simple matter to create a searchable text-index of all the e-mails which were sent or received by your student e-mail server. This archive can then be interrogated for key phrases or messages between particular individuals.
Three ways to reduce e-mail dependence
As mentioned earlier, large amounts of e-mail (like the 80-100 items I receive on an average day) can be a source of stress. I’d like to share a few simple tactics I’ve used to manage e-mail in an efficient way.
1. E-mail is an “asynchronous” tool - there is no need to respond immediately. Turn off or ignore the pop-up icons and deal with your e-mails at a few set times each day. Interruptions are terrible for productivity, so don’t create them by reading each e-mail as it arrives. If there is something really vital, the sender should really be phoning you – I’ve put this to the test and the “red exclamation” e-mails are always followed up by a phone call if they really are that urgent! But do set aside some time to respond to e-mail in a timely fashion.
2. Before sending an e-mail, consider if e-mail is the best form of communication. Would a phone call be better? Or even a face-to-face meeting? Often, one conversation can take the place of several e-mails.
3. When sending an e-mail, clarify your preferred response. At Arena we have a standard of starting the subject line with “Action”, “Feedback”, “Info” or “Recreational”, which gives a clear steer as to the expected next step.
However, please do consider your organisational culture before following this guidance!