Retention: A real dilemma

Why is the issue of e-mail retention so divisive in the IT industry?

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

It is not often that the professionals in the IT industry are passionately and deeply split on an issue. Most issues incite little discussion. But the retention of e-mails is – surprisingly – one of those issues that really divides people and gets them excited.

So what are the issues? One camp says to get rid of e-mails within a 30-day time period so that there is not a lot of liability floating around. Another camp says to hold on to the e-mails as long as you can, because if there ever is a lawsuit, the e-mails may prove to be worth their weight in gold.

Let me tell you a little story. A number of years ago, I was attending one of my daughter’s school functions when I found myself sitting across from another parent, a nice lady who turned out to be a lawyer. We exchanged pleasantries and she asked me what I did. I said a few words about data warehousing. I explained that a data warehouse – among other things – was a place to put archival data. Her eyes widened and she just erupted with conversation. She worked for Johns Manville, a Colorado corporation that created materials for the building trade. Johns Manville was just then filing for Chapter 11 protection because of the lawsuits that had been made against them. It seems that in World War II, Johns Manville had exposed a number of its workers to asbestos. The carcinogenic properties of asbestos were not then known.

But now there were lawsuits being created everywhere. The lawyer said that Johns Manville recognized its legal and moral duty to help those people who had been exposed to asbestos, but the number of lawsuits being generated was far greater than the number of people that could possibly have been exposed to the asbestos. She went on to say that their legal staff was greatly hamstrung by the lack of archival records. With inadequate records, Johns Manville could not separate the legitimate lawsuits from the illegitimate lawsuits. And this circumstance put Johns Manville into Chapter 11.

So there is a powerful case being made for storing and treasuring archival data, including e-mails.

On the other side of the fence, lawyers say that e-mails represent a liability. Lawyers worry that at some future date, someone is going to do discovery and find out that the company indeed had some liability. Therefore, lawyers support getting rid of e-mails at all costs – jettisoning the data as quickly as possible.

And who does this sound like? Kind of sounds like Enron to me – or maybe WorldCom/MCI in the days of Bernie Ebbers.

There is no argument that getting rid of e-mails lessens a corporation’s potential liability. But it also greatly hamstrings the ability to defend the corporation as well.

If you ask my opinion, I think the liability is far less than the asset value. If you don’t believe that, perhaps you are working for another Enron.

Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations. Bill can be reached at 303-681-6772.

Editor's Note: More articles, resources and events are available in Bill's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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