Email: KM killer or KM salvation?

Right then.

We know these things:

  • In an emergency, critical roles can be held by a series of staff, all involved for a short period. They might be on site and involved for a couple of months, a couple of weeks, or even a handful of days.
  • In emergencies — and at other times – a lot of the core discussions and decisions are chiefly documented in, or at least circulated by, email.
  • When staff leave a job a or country, their email repositories go with them. They’re not available as a source of knowledge or narrative about what’s gone on for the team, even if they stay working for your agency elsewhere.

We know these things cause this problem:

  • When institutional knowledge about even recent day to day decisions is unavailable or difficult to obtain for new staff, it has a detrimental impact on our ability to work coherently internally, as well as with external actors like partners and donors. In short, it contributes to institutional idiocy and is a barrier to getting on with good programme delivery across the phases of a response.

We have ways to try to deal with it:

  • Printing emails to place on hard copy project or partner files; saving off critical emails and attaching them to management information systems; ensuring that communications docs get stored coherently in ever-so-tidy folder structures on group drives…. blah. Unless you have OCD or nothing better to do, this stuff makes you weep.
  • The problem is that these are all highly time consuming during a period when the time of staff and managers is at an absolute premium. It is not storing, managing or sharing knowledge inside the critical workflow. Which means that all too often, basically it doesn’t happen. And the contents of network/server drives typically can’t be easily accessed between offices, between countries, with HQ – all barriers to highly useful transparency and knowledge management.
  • We can pretend that handover notes and briefings deal with this issue. But all too often handovers are limited, or recruitment delays mean that the right staff don’t actually cross paths. No, handovers are not a robust or reliable approach. Nor is the belief that we can reduce staff turnover to the point where this isn’t going to be a problem.

A way to improve the situation might work like this:

  • So we all have project/grant/financial management information systems, right? And these systems have unique IDs for each project and/or grant, right? So…. what if key emails about a project or donor grant, could simply be CC’ed to an address unique to that project/contract (eg:,, where it would be swooshed off somewhere to be accessible and searchable by the successor project coordinator and other team members?
  • The key benefit from this approach is that it would be quite “frictionless” for front line staff at the point that information and internal thinking and daily decision making needed to be stored – no more difficult or time consuming than adding a cc recipient to an email.
  • I’m not suggesting that all emails would need to be stored – indeed an unmediated dump of a PC’s emails wouldn’t be an improvement. But picture an incoming project coordinator being able to skim through the last month’s key email communications with staff, partners, donors and HQ in the 72 hours before arriving in post. You’d arrive with a substantial shortcut to situational awareness. Picture being able to have access to a log like this when doing an after action review or evaluation down the road.
  • I’m agnostic where that repository might be – so long as it’s a web browser accessible platform, meets all the standard security requirements so only accessed inside the organisation, and is simply organised on the surface but well searchable.
  • It would be the work of a couple of days to set up a ‘pilot’ of this using (say) And while I’m enormously in favour of skunkworks projects in the main, on this one it’s not getting off on the right foot – my shop has more than enough information stovepipes as it is; this thought bubble can’t contribute to that problem. And never mind lobbing potentially confidential information onto a gmail server.

I guess the bottom line is, is that for emergency/relief NGOs, a critical part of the organisation (ie: field staff in emergencies) are often quite realistically constrained in going beyond plain trusted old email for their communication, and their inboxes for their knowledge management, into fancy tools like Sharepoint – which the rest of the tail back towards HQ may have already adopted, or be very keen to have in ubiquitous use. They’ll just never get there, and INGOs must bite the bullet and effectively interface with these staff where they are and how they work. Email is simply where some of our most essential people work; that’s unlikely to change; we should have core approaches to KM that connect with these facts – and are absurdly easy at the point of use to boot.

So now I’m looking for someone who can tell me of a system that already works like this, or conversely, why it’s a rubbish idea for a reason I’ve overlooked.


7 Comments on “Email: KM killer or KM salvation?”

  1. Alanna says:

    I have wondered the same thing. Your work email isn’t personal – why not leave it for your successor?

  2. J. says:

    I agree with Alanna – it is a really good point. Two thoughts that come to mind offhand:

    1) The technology side of it should be easily do-able. The challenge will be to get one’s (or at least my) IT colleagues to not over-engineer the solution.

    2) Volume/discipline – the amount of email that gets generated in a single day by every one of the response staff is, as you know, immense. Sifting back through at the end of each week or month to pick out the key message which need to be passed along at the end of a deployment well, that will require some discipline.

  3. Ian Thorpe says:

    Interesting idea. The problem of keeping track of key knowledge stored on e-mail when people move out of a duty station, or even out of an organization is a very challenging one that we certainly haven’t cracked.

    I think your suggestion has some merits BUT there are a couple of tricky issues:

    1. As J mentions there would be a huge volume of e-mails. Processing this and deciding what to keep and how to classify ad organize it would be a big issue and would probably needed dedicated staff support.

    2. Retrieving this data and making sense of it afterwards would be even more challenging. I find it difficult even to make sense of my own e-mail exchanges after a certain period of time has gone by let alone someone else’s. And usually you need to read through a lot of e-mails between different people to get a complete picture of something. So retrieving all the key e-mail needed to understand something and making sense of them after the fact is probably too time consuming for most circumstances unless you really need to examine an audit trail for something.

    While keeping the whole e-mail trail might still be useful for certain purposes, I’d suggest it might be better to set up some kind of way of recording key decision points throughout the process in a more systematic way – maybe by summary e-mails if you prefer, then for most purposes these would provide enough information to help retrieve key knowledge at a later stage and yet be manageable to store and retrieve for reference later.

    In addition systematic debriefings of people leaving an emergency and making new people read the relevant briefings when they start (or even better a conversation between those leaving and those arriving) would go a long way to help with knowledge continuity.

    Also even if these summaries and briefings were originally shared in e-mail form it would make sense to transfer them to a web based searchable database for later retrieval – even if it were based in Sharepoint 😉

  4. Cynan says:

    Thanks for the comments guys. Couple of responses

    J – the idea would be that particular information (emails) could be pulled out of the stream, while you’re working, rather than needing a separate process of review at the end of each week. You’re already putting together sitreps at the end of the week, you don’t need this to duplicate that.

    Ian – per above, I’m not suggesting the entire stream/volume of anyone’s email is kept by default. Agreed that summary emails (a daily note for file?) could be a useful approach. While we’re being truly visionary, let’s plug in a speech-to-text app in your laptop so you can dictate two minute note at the start or end of the day, press ‘send’ and these are stored for your successor to skim read when they replace you in a month.

    Certainly they should end up in a sharepoint-like system. Just so long as the actual knowledge capture doesn’t necessarily require its use.

  5. […] 3.      Keeping communication as a two way street, being cognizant of what may or may not work in different parts of the organization –  Cynan Houghton, a capacity building coordinator  in a international NGO notes that  email can kill knowledge management (KM) and continuity of program management, but email is also  an inescapable field tool. Ergo, knowledge management approaches must come to email, rather than trying in vain to get field staff to use fancy/heavy applications.  His full post on this: Email KM Killer or KM Salvation. […]

  6. […] find that sweet spot that email needs to land on in that complex collaborative environment with the emergence and adoption of social tools within the corporate environment. So plenty of the links I am referencing in this […]

  7. […] 3.      Keeping communication as a two way street, being cognizant of what may or may not work in different parts of the organization –  Cynan Houghton, a capacity building coordinator  in a international NGO notes that  email can kill knowledge management (KM) and continuity of program management, but email is also  an inescapable field tool. Ergo, knowledge management approaches must come to email, rather than trying in vain to get field staff to use fancy/heavy applications.  His full post on this: Email KM Killer or KM Salvation. […]

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