But multiply that by 500 workers in the company, or 1,000, or 20,000, and managing that email becomes more than a chore. Some IT managers would say it's become a nightmare.
Well, the nightmare is getting worse.
A deluge of regulations is raining down on corporate America. Customer privacy issues, fair trade issues and corporate bad citizenship are driving legislative mandates and regulations that have rules for various industries governing what information must be retained and for how long. The health care industry and financial services are the two industries generally considered to be the hardest hit, but the idea behind the regulations -- credibility and not a little CYA (cover your assets) -- is spreading from industry to industry.
That means it's no longer enough to filter out spam and viruses from coming in, managing the email in the system and then reminding users to delete their old messages. Today, it's fast becoming necessary to be able to sort the business-critical emails from the CFO's messages from his mother and then archive those important emails in a way that they can be easily and quickly accessed again.
''We've done surveys and there's really been a reversal in attitudes on email,'' says David Via, a research analyst with San Francisco-based Ferris Research. ''Two years ago, the prevailing approach was to delete everything. We've seen almost an inversion of that. Today, they know they have to keep it but they don't always know how.''
A large part of the catalyst for the change is the fact that email has replaced the memo and to a great extent even the telephone for business communications. That means email is the communication medium of record. If federal authorities, like the SEC and the FDA, want to monitor or be able to audit communications, they're going to be looking at email. When a company is sued, lawyers will go straight to the email. Just ask Bill Gates.
''The importance is that email has become the primary business record,'' says Via. ''All internal correspondence is done via email so it comes under the authority of all of these regulations... You have a telephone conversation and it goes away. But email leaves a trail. If you destroy email after 90 days, you've destroyed evidence that could be incriminating but also information that could prove your innocence.''
And we're not just talking about emails that list meeting times or where to meet for lunch.
With a majority of business users relying on email more than the telephone when it comes to business communications, an ever-increasing amount of critical information is passing through a company's email system. Sendmail, Inc., a company that sells email archiving technology, reports that 60 percent of business critical information is stored within corporate messaging systems. That's up from 33 percent just four years ago. Sendmail also reports that an average IT administrator spends five to six hours a week recovering old messages, since more than 80 percent of end users cannot recover them on their own.
In emails, financial expectations are discussed. Stocks might be suggested. Sales are made. Customers make complaints. Companies make promises.
Now a growing number of businesses are realizing that they need to save these emails. And they can't just pack them away like receipts you toss in a box at home. It's much more complicated -- and expensive -- than that. They need to be organized. They need to be easily accessible. When an archived email is needed, you don't want to have to call in half the IT team just to find it.
''It's not just a case of not throwing out your backup tapes,'' says Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata, an industry analyst firm based in Nashua, N.H. ''It's a case of having policies and procedures in place. If a company has not given any thought to this in the past, it's relatively complex.
''It's daunting because the consequences of messing up could be very severe,'' adds Haff. ''If there was a lawsuit or investigation, and data that was required to be stored and made accessible wasn't stored, that's a violation of the law. There's even the potential for criminal charges and they could certainly include IT management.''
What to Save and How to Do It
One of the issues is that you can't save everything and you don't want to. Just storing data isn't enough. Storing lots and lots of documents and files isn't what's needed either. The stored emails need to be searchable and accessible.
''What the software companies in the market are doing is attempting to allow customers to set policies so you don't have to save everything. It's Information Lifecycle Management,'' says Doug Chandler, a program director at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, an industry analyst firm. ''It's too expensive and not very efficient to save everything. What needs to be saved and available and what needs to be saved but not instantly available? There's a lot of policies to set... It's not a situation of traditional software and services. There's a lot of different elements here.''
So this is not even close to a solely IT project. Business leaders, corporate attorneys and human resource people need to sit down together, pour over the regulations and set up the policies. What emails can be safely discarded? Maybe none. What emails need to be stored so that they are immediately available? How do you categorize and cross categorize them? Will you need a third-party to come in and do this for you? Can it be managed inhouse?
These regulations are coming down at a time when the economy is still stumbling and IT budgets are leaner than they've been in years. Can companies afford to do this now? Analysts say they really don't have a choice.
''Companies need to spend money on certain things to be compliant with laws,'' notes Haff. ''Accountants are expensive too. This is one of those things that companies really don't have the choice to economize on. I don't think it's a huge expensive relative to IT expenditures as a whole, but it certainly is an expense. How expensive will partly depend on how well laid out and how structured the current policies and procedures are... Either way, it can't be avoided.''