Filing and Sorting Emails – What’s the Real Problem?

I came across this opportunity in the marketplace today. It’s worth a read. If you want to apply you only have a few days left though.

My first thought, on reading it, was “are these folks crazy?”

The civil service is, by and large, not at the power user end of the email community. I don’t have the figures to hand but when looking at a move to Office 365 at a 35,000 strong government department, the number of emails/day was nothing earth shattering (I was thinking about migration and how to keep everything in sync at the time so daily volumes were my focus).

Edit 21/8/19: Found the data that I had:


Seven years old so doubtless much has changed.

End edit.

It’s also not very different from any other organisation. Government has, of course, to respond to FOI queries, but banks have to deal with financial authorities looking at, say, insider trading or other inquiries (which also extend to voice calls and texts).

My next thought was “why not go and see Google and Microsoft and see what plans they have?” – surely every possible option for filing and sorting emails has been looked at to see what would work at scale and what wouldn’t, and there would be teams of people who would have a deep understanding of the art of the possible.

And then I wondered whether this was looking at the problem the wrong way up. The assumption constrains the problem. That is, what we need to do is sort our email more effectively so that we can more efficiently find things later. As my dear friends at Group Partners have said for two decades or more “how do we avoid solving the wrong problem really well?”

The trouble is that the civil service has long since moved on from email. Take a look at any reasonably sized department and you will see that the work is done in several of the following

– Google docs

– Office 365

– Sharepoint

– Slack

– Teams

– Jira

– Confluence

– Text

– Web content engines

And a few others that I’m sure I have missed out. Perhaps the final version of a document is sent via email, and certainly there is little in the way of cross-department collaboration capability (let alone with those outside of government) which means that to and fro there is in email. But the thinking and development behind a policy (why does it look like this) and all of the iterations are unlikely to be in email.

The better question then, to capture the direction of travel and not the current position (“skate to where the puck is going” as Steve Jobs said, quoting Wayne Gretzky – I think this was at the iPhone launch in 2007; plainly Gretzky would have said it earlier, assuming he said it), is “how should we set ourselves up so that we have the best chance of harnessing all of the information we have and making sure the right stuff ends up where it needs to be” so that you end up with an easy review of “how did we get here” as well as a Library of Alexandria for the historians and regulators to pore over in the future.

My guess is this alpha will end up in disappointment. It won’t be able to solve the challenges inherent in the pure email problem, and it certainly won’t solve the “we have so much in so many places” part of the problem.

That said, I hope they publish the results of the discovery (the opportunity says it will only be released to the shortlist of bidders) as well as the results of the alpha. There will be interesting stuff to see in the thinking and approach to the problem. I suspect Microsoft and google (and slack and others) will be interested too.

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