Three reasons why employees like to keep their own personal email archives

I’ve been working on a magazine article, looking at the failure of both technologies to replace email in the workplace and corporate email archiving solutions. The main theme is about understanding email from a human-centred perspective rather than simply treating email as ‘data’ to be managed in the most cost effective way possible. The following didn’t quite make the cut in my own final edit, but I thought it might be worth sharing it here.
Over the years I’ve heard various reasons why employees like to keep their own personal email archives and they can be separated into three broad groups:
  1. Journaling – a chronology of what happened when and why;
  2. Personal Library – to record important information for future reference; and
  3. Non-repudiation – keeping copies of who said or did what, in case they need to be used as formal or informal evidence of responsibility.

This break down is based on my experiences over the years of working with organisations either implementing or trying to get more value out of existing collaboration and information management tools.

What is particularly interesting for me is that root cause that drives people to use their electronic mail system for the reasons I’ve listed above isn’t always necessarily the same. For example, in some organisations non-repudiation is important because of particularly toxic office politics. But in other cases, users made a rational decision to keep email because of certain professional responsibilities. The lesson here is that when ever we try to ask people to move away from using email (or at least an over reliance on it), we really need to understand why they using email in a certain way and not just focus on the visible behaviours.

Anyway, what kind of strange email hoarding behaviour have you seen and how does it fit into the categories I’ve described above?

Photo credit: Mr Popular
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7 thoughts on “Three reasons why employees like to keep their own personal email archives

  1. Not to mention that people don’t enjoy archiving email – or accessing archived email. Or even thinking about managing their email. Its easier just to keep it all lumped in their email client (easier not better).Searching email is also a factor – older version of outlook are terrible for search. (index? what index?)

  2. Mined 1998 email archive today – email fr USA Corrosion colleague on Tin Whisker computer hardware probs. The colleague had emailed me a long explanation when not much info was around on Tin Whiskers – now info is more abundant. Back then it was incredibly helpful and I have shared it with colleagues every year or so when computer hardware reliability issues surface. Note – the root cause of the Tin Whisker problem differs from that of the Zinc Whisker problem

  3. Why is email “hoarding” such a strange behavior? What is the alternative? 50 years ago, people also liked to keep paper correspondence and were only limited by the size of their filing cabinets. Now those filing cabinets are nearly infinite, so why not keep it?Is the question more about why people don’t follow corporate policies for clearing out their mailboxes? That’s a different story. Or why do we get so much email in the first place. Maybe that is really where you would like to go.

  4. James – Your focus on individual motivation makes sense. I’d also point to a few other factors: How much of the hoarding is a result of a lack of corporate systems that make filing, searching and retrieving easier than dumping e-mails in Outlook folders? Alternatively, is the hoarding a result of our failure to educate ourselves and others on the smartest ways to use e-mail? How many people have developed sensible personal systems for handling e-mail — or are they treating those messages like the electronic equivalents of physical phone messages that just pile up on a desk?- Mary

  5. It may be slightly unrelated but I actually worked for a director who asked me to print out the intranet! We never did get to the paperless office and I can’t see us having an email-less office unless we physically take the servers away. Main reason I see if the people need to ‘cover themselves’ as companies (or the people appointed to manage them) find it hard to develop a culture of trust

  6. Thanks for the great comments everyone! Some of your points start to touch on some of the issues I talk about in the article. To address Jack’s point slightly differently, yes – most companies are being driven by the need (perceived or otherwise) to constrain the volume of email data they are storing. Unfortunately they aren’t asking why people deal with email the way they do. BTW I did use the phrase ‘hoarding’ quite deliberately – I have images in my head of people acting like squirrels, storing away all those emails for some information winter they think is going to happen đŸ™‚

  7. “Keeping found things found – Personal Information Management” by Williams Jones – is a great read incl emailseems some folks like to keep their email in a big bucket and then just searchothers like me used nested folders with some categories/tagsJones says neither way is the “one best way” and that folks should use what works for them bestquotes “Information is what’s in documents, email messages and web pages we use to get things done” – is the inclusion of email here heresy to some IT purists ?

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