Some old problems never seem to go away. Email retention remains an obstinate dilemma for far too many organizations. Volumes continue to mount, with business email totaling 109 billion messages every day, and forecasted growth of 7 percent each year. Email archives and cloud email solutions address the symptom of overburdened servers, but these strategies do nothing to tackle the core problem, which is too much email, kept too long. And the cost of email retention outstrips the cost of email storage, in large part due to e-discovery expense in future litigation.

The cold, hard truth is that the persistent problem of email volume will not be solved with technology alone. What’s needed, and frankly overdue, is a bit more organizational discipline and direction on email retention. 

We begin by reframing the question “How long must we keep our email?” because that question is a dead end. Retention rules properly turn upon the information’s content and context, but “email” is a medium, not a content type. An average user’s mailbox is a commingled cornucopia of record-worthy messages, non-record-worthy messages, and messages totally unrelated to the organization’s business.

So, one must divide the email medium into its various content types and then establish the right retention rule for each content type:

  • Record-Quality Email

These messages and their attachments should be moved, virtually or physically, into an environment that will retain them consistent with the organization’s retention schedule’s rules for such content. There are a variety of options to keep this as simple as possible.

  • Non-Record-Quality Email

The remaining messages and attachments are, by definition, not required for ordinary course of business purposes, and are not valuable on a long-term basis. They should be subject to a retention rule short enough to reduce unnecessary retention, yet long enough to minimize pack-rat behavior by users.

  • Email Back-Up

Since back-up is properly done solely for disaster recovery restoration, not archival storage, email back-up should only be kept for the period necessary to accomplish this purpose. That is measured by days or weeks, not years.

  • Email Subject to a Preservation Duty

If litigation is pending or clearly impending, email and attachments that are relevant to the matter must be preserved. This duty generally supersedes all ordinary course of business retention rules, regardless of whether the email are record-quality or a non-record, and in some circumstances may even extend to back-ups. The organization should have a well-planned legal hold process that will identify email and attachments subject to the preservation duty, notify the affected users and data source custodians, and ensure that the preservation duty is met.

For a White Paper on establishing email retention rules, click here.