Reality IT: Taming the Wild Inbox

Faced with bloated inboxes, our team realized there are two ways to motivate reluctant users to purge thousands of old e-mails: sticks (threats) and carrots (incentives).

June 28, 2006

3 Min Read
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Our CIO, Steve Fox, recently convinced ACME senior management of the need to restrict the size of user e-mail inboxes and regularly purge certain folders. Previously, our users had no e-mail quota nor were old messages ever purged. That's because managers and users would make such a stink at the merest hint of such a plan that Steve would back down. In fact, IT wasn't even allowed to get rid of mail in the Deleted Items folder--despite my argument that it was not called the "Retained Items" folder for a reason. But we finally found the right combination of sticks and carrots to overcome managerial resistance and bring users into line.

The Mail Plan

Under our new policy, user inboxes and subfolders wouldn't be purged, but there would be a 500-MB limit on each mailbox. And every day we would purge e-mail older than 60 days in the Deleted Items folder--we had wanted 30 days but we compromised--and older than 90 days in the Sent Items folder.

This sounded reasonable--at least to us--but managers and users still needed convincing. So how did we get them on board? There are two ways to get a donkey moving: You make a threat (the stick) or offer an incentive (the carrot).

We tried various sticks with management, but the one that really got them going was the threat of lawyers. We explained the potential legal ramifications of keeping e-mail forever. In a court case, our company might be required to hand over any e-mail on the system, including tape backups. This means it would be in our best interest to get rid of older e-mail--in accordance with regulatory guidelines, of course.Disaster recovery also proved a potent argument. Restoring huge mailboxes from tape can take countless hours. Because e-mail is such a critical app, managers would rather see e-mail restored quickly than have unlimited mailboxes.

Send in the Carrots

Many users objected vehemently to the new policy. They seemed to think their e-mail--and they themselves--were special and thus deserving of exclusive treatment. Yeah, right.

We distributed e-mail (of course) that explained the reasons behind the new policy and showed how it would benefit the company. We also wanted the users understand that it was a serious issue, not just some random new IT restriction.

But, as the deadline approached, we still heard grumbling. One problem was paring back mailboxes that were already well over the 500-MB limit. And the helpdesk staff was growing frustrated by users' complaints about the impending restrictions.We could've played hardball with our recalcitrant users, but one of the staff members thought an incentive might be more effective. His idea was to reward the 10 employees who reduced their mailboxes the most with $50 gift certificates to an online shopping site.

This carrot worked amazingly well. Users began dumping tons of e-mail, and some actually checked in with the helpdesk to see how much they had reduced their message store. A week later we posted the list of winners.

Minor Insurrection

But the story isn't over yet. An IT axiom states that for each measure IT puts in place, users will find an equal and opposite workaround. In this case, a few users set up autoarchives to move e-mail to local disk folders--then they shared this technique with others. This is frustrating because these users reintroduced the risks that our measures were meant to address in the first place.

On balance, however, this e-mail project was a success. The managers and most users are cooperating, and we are satisfied with the level of compliance, particularly because everyone understands the requirements and reasoning behind the policy. With the right combination of sticks and carrots, we got this donkey moving. Not that I'm saying our users are donkeys, of course.Hunter Metatek is an enterprise IT director with 15 years' experience in network engineering and management. The events chronicled in this column are based in fact--only the names are fiction. Write to the author at [email protected].

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