Colligo NewsUsing SharePoint to Manage Email – Part 2 – The Keys to Success

This is the second installment in a series of posts based on a recently released Colligo whitepaper called “Developing an Effective Email Collaboration Solution in SharePoint”. The first post discussed the use of Exchange Public Folders (or Managed Folders in Exchange 2007) to upload emails. This post will dive more deeply into some of the key issues that need to be considered when implementing a successful email management solution.

Email management is a specific use case within the broader category of Enterprise Content Management (ECM). Microsoft published an interesting whitepaper that lays out the “Keys to Successful ECM”. In summary, they are:

  • Maximize User Acceptance
  • Minimize the Burden on IT
  • Meet Diverse Organizational Needs

Ease of use and user adoption are generally top of mind when developing an email management solution. The above mentioned Microsoft whitepaper reinforces this point:

“Perhaps the most critical factor in ECM success is how well a system is embraced by its users. Even if every other ECM goal is met, any system that fails in this regard will have limited success. On the flip side, users will extol a system that they perceive as streamlining their workday, improving their productivity, and making their jobs easier.”

In an email management solution, requirements often include the ability to move emails and attachments into a managed server environment through the Outlook interface. SharePoint enables users to email attachments to a document library, however the attachments are stripped off and stored separately while the body of the email is stored as a .eml file that cannot be opened by Outlook. Best practise, then, is generally a drag and drop interface that enables users to move content to Outlook folders manually or automatically using Outlook rules, then upload the email and attachment together to a SharePoint document library as a single .msg file.

Outlook 2003 does not support direct upload of emails and attachments to SharePoint and Outlook 2007 doesn’t upload documents directly to SharePoint document libraries. It does, however, provide the ability to upload email messages to a SharePoint 2007 Discussions list. In this case, the majority of email metadata (e.g. To, From, Cc, Received, etc.) is lost in this process (e.g. Outlook changes the “From” to the person who created the item to the Discussion list, not the original sender of the email). Many organizations require full metadata extraction even for just collaboration purposes. Storing email in a discussions list is usually not considered an option for email retention purposes.

So Microsoft generally recommends using managed folders (in Exchange 2007) with auto-copy to SharePoint. Managed folders appear in a users mailbox, making them a convenient and easy-to-use location to drag and drop emails from their inbox or other folder. An Exchange administrator can then configure a managed folder to auto-copy items added to it directly into a corresponding SharePoint library. However, this approach has two problems. Firstly, the creation and linking of the managed folder in Outlook to the corresponding SharePoint library can only be done by an Exchange administrator. This could represent a significant workload for IT with thousands of team sites and takes away from the goal of SharePoint as a user-administered platform. That conflicts with the second key to success, namely reducing the burden on IT. From the Microsoft whitepaper:

“If the ECM solution requires extensive IT involvement, professional developers, or consultants to set up new sites and workflow processes, many business needs will be left unresolved even though the organization has invested in the technology to meet these needs.”

The flexibility of SharePoint enables organizations to implement different classification schemes, thus meeting a “diverse set of organizational needs”, the third key to success. In the case of SharePoint 2007, this requires setting metadata and content type. In fact, knowledge management best practices dictate that documents (including email) be classified by users at the time they are uploaded to the server.

This requirement highlights a challenge with all of the previously discussed options for moving email-based content into SharePoint. Outlook 2007 discussion list integration, Exchange 2007 “auto-copy” from managed folders, and libraries configured to allow incoming email; all share the same problem that users cannot configure content types or metadata at the time of moving the item into SharePoint. This means users must separately access the SharePoint library later through the browser to set the required properties – this can be an annoyance for users, and also a problem for IT trying enforce adherence to corporate document management standards.

FYI, Kathy Hughes, a sharePoint server MVP in Australia, has put together a terrific set of presentations and recordings on the topic of storing email in SharePoint, called “Emailing MOSS”. Her presentation on the different upload alternatives is particularly interesting and quite detailed.

In my next post I’ll look into some methods for helping to achieve the keys to success with email management.

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