Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Zimbra, E-mail management, and all that rot

Good morning, campers! This post is being written via Zimbra, the engine underpinning PantherLink, the new email/collaboration suite that is being rolled out at UWM sometime next month (and which allows direct blog posting! Very cool). UWM's IT department is surprisingly understanding of records management needs and concerns, considering some of the horror stories I heard last week at the UWROC semi-annual meeting, and they have given me a test account to play with and check out the records management capabilities of the system. So far? I like it, with a few reservations. Not really surprising, considering it's an email system first, a collaboration system second, and a records management application last-- but it's still a bit distressing, considering how much of a problem email management is for both archivists and records managers.

So, without further ado:

--Tags! Oh man, tags are exciting, and they're implemented here very well. Unlike a lot of tag-enabled applications, which make you input tags separately for each email, Zimbra lets you tag a document, then saves that tag in a visual tag library with color-coded icons. This is REALLY useful for taxonomy, because if a user sees tags, and they are readily available for application to emails, that user is more likely to apply them to the emails they receive. This, in turn, makes searching for e-discovery, reference, etc. That much more likely. Well done Zimbra!
--The Ajax-based UI is a gigantic improvement over the PantherMail interface currently in use. Essentially, what Ajax does for the client is to allow for full interactivity in email management. In practical purposes, this means that things I was doing with Thunderbird-- dragging files, right-clicking to get email properties, etc.-- can be done through the web interface. This is fantastic for standardizing RM training for emails (more people are likely to use the webclient, which in turn means that I don't have to present three scenarios), and also makes it more likely that emails will be dragged to appropriate tags/folders. Speaking of which:
--The foldering schema in Zimbra allows for multi-level hierarchy, which is something not even Thunderbird does. This is great for records management purposes, because it allows users to organize by subject and date, which can (in theory) correspond to records series and disposition date. Of course, this is all still dependent on user application, but to a certain extent this can be partially automated by:
--Message filtering, which appears as a big blue plus sign on every email. With a little training on setting up filters, people can send emails from a certain address or containing certain subject terms directly to the appropriate folder, do not pass Go, do not collect $200 or create inbox clutter. I tell people to use Thunderbird because it has this functionality, but if the web client ALSO has the functionality people may be inclined to use that AND to set up filters.
--Advanced search capabilities built right in, including the use of all appropriate metadata (including tags) as well as keyword search. I don't need to mention how nice this is.

--As far as I can tell, there is no mechanism for actually archiving emails. This is obviously a major flaw from a records management standpoint, exacerbated by the problem from an IT standpoint of people keeping everything on the email server again instead of downloading to a departmental server. This, in turn, will lead to more "reduce your inbox size"-type emails from IT, which will lead to more difficulties with record emails being destroyed. I am hoping this will be addressed in the PantherLink meetings to which I have been invited, but I (admittedly no techie, but at the very least a "clueful user") couldn't figure it out from here.
--A lot of functionality-- but I wonder if that may also lead people to conclude it's too busy. Right now, I count 21 buttons and/or tabs to push on the main screen, and I suspect people-- particularly non-tech-savvy people-- might get intimidated by that, thus not using the RM functionality of the program at all. Similarly:
--The Ajax UI is radically different from the HTML interface being used by the PantherMail system currently in place. For me this is good because I like new and shiny things. For a lot of people this will be bad because they've gotten in the groove of their old email system and don't want to learn a new one. Ultimately, this will result in a lot of people not using the RM functionality out of sheer orneriness. In addition:
--While some aspects of the UI are very user-friendly, like dragging files and creating folders, others are, well, not. For example, it took me about 15 minutes to figure out how to even CREATE a tag, let alone how to apply a pre-existing tag to an already-existing email. This will ultimately mean A TON of training resources expended on my part and on the part of UITS. Speaking of which:
--Zimbra does not, as far as I can tell, include functionality for top-down tag dissemination or categorization. This is problematic because if I don't have the power to make tags immediately available for insertion into people's clients, they will invent their own tags, categories, and folders. This works well for one-computer searching, but not so well for multi-computer searching of the kind that universities often have to do. To a certain extent I can ameliorate this by posting a list of suggested tags on the RM website or something, but again, it's a case of "you can bring a horse to water, but you can't make him drink".

--The Help menu, in addition to not working right at the moment, takes you to a page on purging the trash folder when you click on "archiving email" in the index listing of topics. Yikes. I hope that's just a link error and not what passes for records management at the Zimbra corporate offices, 'cause if so I think a couple of fellows named Sarbanes and Oxley are going to want to have a few words with them.

So, my initial impressions? As an email management system, very good! This will help a lot of people keep their emails straight, which means less work for me in explaining to people how to find that one email. As an enterprise records management system, less good! There doesn't seem to be any account taken for disposition, workflow, or even exporting of email into a program that CAN do that stuff. Which is fine, considering that Zimbra didn't design the client to incorporate disposition scheduling or archiving, so I can't really blame them for doing that. But it also means more work for me in attempting to come up with a workaround for the lack of university-wide control. If it's helping people organize their emails it's probably a no-score win, but when people start deleting stuff to meet quotas... Oy.

Anyway, this is all subject to change after the PantherLink meetings and/or the actual rollout. We'll see what happens.

ETA: Apparently, I'm not the first person to note that there's no archiving tool in the Zimbra Client, as a little poking around on their website yielded a link to Zimbra Archiving and Discovery. So I stand partially corrected. However, I will keep the original concern up in the post because this is an add-on rather than an automatically included part of the Zimbra email client, and at $24/mailbox, I'm not sure that UITS will be entirely happy to invest in that. Also, the archiving/discovery functionality is administrator-based, which DOES take the onus off of users to archive their email (good) but relies entirely on the discretion of the IT professionals to determine which mailboxes and email messages are worth keeping (potentially not so good). Anyway, I reserve judgment until such time as I actually meet with the PantherLink folks and voice these concerns.


Sarah said...

LOL. Nice. Way to use titles from (spaghetti?) Westerns as headings in your blog.

It makes me wonder what the purposes are, then, of technology such as this. That is, how are we (as a university) conceiving the role(s) of communication software, and how does that play into the somewhat hidden operations such as records management, etc. I believe that while these things are part and parcel of the deal, us snarky academics who don't do stuff like you, have no clue -- because the technology itself is 1) merely utilitarian; and 2) not conducive, at least up front, about the ways it can help with things like you discuss.

Solution? I have no idea. I can only engage in theoretical and abstract questions about it. :)

Mike said...

You shared great post on "email management". Email Management will help a lot of people keep their emails straight, which means less work for me in explaining to people how to find that one email. I made lots of label in my email ID and now keep my email in different label for managing it properly.