Leveraging the Power of Exchange Public Folders

The difference between email and messaging

Imagine returning to the office from a 4-day weekend only to find more than 240 email messages waiting for you. You groan aloud at the hours it will take you to wade through all the correspondence. As you peruse the subject lines in your inbox, your eyes roll skyward at the quantity of junk mail that has accumulated in a few short days.

Some of the messages contain press releases, some are duplicates, some have been sent with a Reply-All, and others solicit volunteer contributions or announce items for sale or trade. Most of these messages are junk mail. Other messages contain meeting announcements, valid requests for schedule or project information, and new information from human resources. These messages are not junk mail, but they might not require your immediate attention.

Sound familiar? This scenario plays out every day at millions of desktops around the world. Although the ratio of junk mail to valid mail varies, my informal and nonscientific poll indicates that the ratio hovers around 50 percent in high-tech companies. Even worse, in companies that rely almost exclusively on email for communication, junk mail can account for 75 percent or more of all incoming messages—a phenomenal waste of time and resources.

To get a handle on all the unsolicited mail that you receive, you need to establish a solid messaging and collaboration strategy. Once you appreciate how much time and money your junk mail problem can cost your company, you can begin to use Microsoft Exchange Public Folders to reduce the amount of email in your inbox and empower users to manage these folders, thereby reducing the stress on your IT department.

The Cost of Junk Mail
Suppose from my example that you can process 60 messages every hour, primarily because you can quickly identify junk mail by reading the subject line. If you can read this fast, you'll spend around 4 hours responding to the accumulated messages. However, if you wade through only 40 messages an hour, you'll spend 6 hours or more cleaning out your inbox. If the ratio of junk mail to valid mail is 50 percent, 120 of the messages require your immediate and personal attention.

If you work a typical 8-hour day and you’re a fast reader, you'll lose more than 2 hours just processing junk mail from the weekend and even more time processing the new messages that arrive after you return to work. At worst, you'll either spend the better part of a day weeding out unnecessary messages or you'll work late to catch up, which is bad for morale after a long weekend. Alternatively, you might decide to delete all messages older than 1 day and claim you didn’t receive a copy when someone asks for your response. Clearly, none of these outcomes is desirable.

To calculate the financial cost of cleaning out your inbox, multiply the lost time by the number of employees in your organization who also take 2 days off during the month. Assuming your company has 100 such employees and most users receive 60 messages or more each day, your company will lose upwards of 200 hours of employee time per month. If your company employs 1000 employees, the lost hours increase to 2000 each month. If you multiply these hours by an average employee cost, say $30 per hour, in a company with 1000 employees, the cost for wasted time can exceed $60,000 per month. An estimated annual cost using this same example will exceed $720,000—quite a price to pay for a poor messaging and collaboration strategy, isn’t it?

Although this example is purposely artificial, it accurately illustrates the widespread problem of email abuse. You can adjust the example for your organization by tracking the number of messages you receive each day, identify your junk mail ratio, and modify the numbers accordingly. And although I believe that 60 messages per day, including weekend days, is a pretty accurate number, I know of several organizations where the daily volume of email exceeds 120 new messages per day. Remember, in a global organization, Sunday in the US is Monday in other parts of the world.

Finally, consider the secondary costs associated with a myopic email approach. Although these costs are significantly less than the lost employee time, you can associate real dollars with a large and ever growing database. These secondary costs can include server hardware, backup software, backup media, backup time, hours spent to coordinate multiple servers and sites, staff hours for database maintenance, and staff hours to restore messages or mailboxes that users accidentally delete.

Email or Messaging?
During a migration from an old email system to a new messaging system, most organizations are grateful that messages simply flow correctly from one location to another and that distribution lists function properly. Few companies consider how they can leverage collaboration features to reclaim precious lost hours for employees and ultimately improve productivity. As my example demonstrates, this poor leveraging of technology leads to thousands of hours of lost time and hundreds of thousands of lost dollars over the course of a year. And we haven’t even considered the effect of these lost hours on product time-to-market or competitive advantage.

Need-to-Know Versus Want-to-Know
Every time I work on a Microsoft Exchange migration, my goal is to reduce daily email volume by a minimum of 25 percent. Although my approach is hardly academic, I start with a divide-and-conquer technique by sorting messages into two categories: Need-to-Know and Want-to-Know.

A Need-to-Know item directly involves the recipient, requires a response, and is time sensitive. The typical one-on-one messages we send to each other regarding meeting times and places, performance reviews, policy or document reviews, schedule changes, and security announcements fall into the Need-to-Know category.

A Want-to-Know item includes information-only content (i.e., an item that isn't time sensitive and doesn't require a personal response). This category includes postings about companywide or group activities, project teams, interdepartmental reports, corporate policies and procedures, extracurricular activities such as softball or volleyball teams, for sale or trade items, and other bulletin board-type notices.

The next challenge is organizing categories for Want-to-Know items that you want to deliver to a user's inbox and those that you want to publish in a shared area. Want-to-Know items naturally fall into groups that resemble the corporate organization chart—everyone in the company, vertical departments, horizontal groups of executives and managers, and cross-functional teams. Typically, your email distribution lists identify most of these groups.

In a perfect world, all messages that you deliver to an employee’s inbox would fall into the Need-to-Know category. In this situation, distribution lists would exist for every combination of employees that we need to reference as a group, and these lists would be able to handle personnel changes gracefully. In addition, most Want-to-Know items would appear in a shared collaboration area with appropriate access controls where users could browse items as needed on a time-available basis. Organizing this Want-to-Know content into public folders is akin to creating inbox filters to organize messages into folders, only on a much larger scale.

Public Folder Building Blocks
Want-to-Know items consist of many flavors of communication, including corporate calendars; discussion groups; project tasks, schedules, and status reports; meeting room and audio/visual equipment scheduling; and publication of companywide policies and procedures. If an organization spans multiple locations, the company might also need to collaborate across geographic boundaries. Microsoft Exchange Public Folders are the natural place to store Want-to-Know items.

Public folders provide the cornerstone for building an enterprise publication and collaboration methodology. A public folder is a shared, common area similar to a shared directory on a network drive. However, unlike the typical network share that the IT department manages, almost any individual within the company can own and manage public folders.

The owner of a public folder decides who can read, post, update, and remove items in the folder. The owner can change access permissions, and add and remove employees as the collaboration group changes over time. Departments, groups, and project leads can modify their collaboration area in a timely fashion without waiting for IT intervention. In a large organization, Exchange can automatically replicate public folders to servers at other sites when local access to shared areas is desirable.

Public Folder Features
You can create six types of public folders in Microsoft Outlook: appointment, contact, journal, mail, note, and task. The sidebar, "Exchange Public Folder Types" provides a brief explanation of each folder type. A judicious combination of folder types can support most enterprise publication and collaboration requirements.

Each folder is an object that has predefined functionality, and you can use Outlook or an Exchange client to convert any of these objects to any other type. For example, when you drag a message from your inbox to your contact folder, the contact function automatically converts the incoming message into a contact. Likewise, when you copy a message to an appointment folder or vice versa, the message becomes an appointment or an appointment converts to a message. This conversion works the same way on public folders as it does on objects in a user's Exchange mailbox or personal folder. You can find more information about folder types and their associated features in Microsoft Outlook Help.

Public Folder Management Features
Exchange provides several features that greatly enhance the power of public folders as compared to a shared network drive. The most important features are built-in roles (i.e., access permissions), document age limits, a deleted item retention period, and a moderator feature. Another key feature is Exchange’s ability to delegate management of distribution lists and public folders to individuals and groups. This last feature lets you empower users to manage their lists and shared areas independently, which in many cases reduces IT support demands.

Built-in access permissions. Each public folder has at least one owner and can have several owners. Users can identify each owner by his or her Exchange mailbox display name. Exchange lets you assign eight standard permission roles that range from full access to no access. The standard roles, in descending order of access, are Owner, Publishing Editor, Editor, Publishing Author, Author, Nonediting Author, Reviewer, Contributor, and None. In addition to these eight roles, the folder owner can combine individual controls to create custom access for individuals when one of the standard roles is not sufficient; however, custom roles are seldom required.

With a combination of access permissions, the folder owner can make the contents available to everyone, all members of a department, or just members of a special project or tiger team. Likewise, the owner can restrict access to a small group that includes executives or managers. Because public folder access permissions are more granular than NTFS access controls, users have much greater control over who can publish, view, modify, and delete content.

Automatic document aging. You can set an age limit for the contents of each folder, which means that Exchange will automatically remove items posted for longer than the publication period from the folder. So, for example, if you have a weekly football pool in a public folder, when you set the age limit to 7 days, Exchange will automatically delete all items older than 7 days.

Deleted item retention. Each folder can also have a folder-specific deleted item retention period. This feature lets users recover accidentally removed items during the retention period without IT intervention. If you have a shared area that publishes information on a monthly basis, you can set the deleted item retention to 30 days. In doing so, a user with the required access control can retrieve any item accidentally removed as long as it's less than 30 days old.

Moderators. When you assign a moderator to a public folder, that person has the power to review and approve a document before it's published in that folder. This mechanism is convenient for ensuring content adheres to publication format and content standards. For example, a moderator might push back a document that contains strong language or subject matter inappropriate for the publication area.

Some Messaging and Collaboration Examples
Modeling corporate communication is a huge and costly task that is beyond the budget of most organizations. In addition, the communication model is a moving target because it changes each time companies merge, sell-off, or reorganize. I suggest you start a messaging strategy by identifying four to six of the most widely used communication procedures and by implementing them with a variety of public folder types. Let's look at several before and after snapshots that I implemented during a recent Exchange migration.

Shared corporate calendar. One individual maintains a corporate calendar of regularly scheduled management meetings. Before the company switched to Exchange, this employee manually checked for conflicts, updated the weekly calendar, and printed and distributed paper copies of the calendar to every top and mid-level manager in the company. After the Exchange migration, we created a corporate calendar from an appointment folder, identified the employee as the folder owner, and set up read-only access for users. Once the users become accustomed to a shared online schedule, managers will be given permission to add and modify their own schedules. This small change saved between 4 and 6 hours per week for the employee tasked with scheduling meetings.

Room and audio/visual equipment scheduling. Two individuals provide centralized scheduling of conference rooms and audio/visual equipment. Before the Exchange and Outlook deployment, these employees managed the scheduling using Excel spreadsheets and pen and paper. With Outlook’s resource-scheduling features, we implemented online scheduling for rooms and equipment. The two scheduling employees are designated owners of the resource mailboxes and can preempt rooms for top management when necessary. This feature saved between 10 and 15 hours per week of staff time.

Department collaboration. Before implementing Exchange, the company shared nearly all documents on a central network-mounted drive. Each time an employee joined a new project, IT needed to add the new project member to the group with access permissions to the shared directory. After we added Exchange, each department received a mail-based public folder as a collaboration area. One or two individuals in each department have owner permission and are trained on how to grant access to other department members. Now, employees can come and go and the department manages its shared area without IT intervention. This feature saved the IT department around an hour per department every week.

Project coordination. Before Exchange, project managers created schedules with Microsoft Project and mailed or printed copies for team members. With the addition of Exchange, each team leader has mail and task folders to coordinate and manage project tasks and related content. The project manager is the owner of the task folder and assigns and tracks tasks for team members. Team members can easily check the status of any project component by scanning the task folder. Project managers decide whether the project folder is for team members only or is read-only for a wider audience. Although the time savings of shared task folders were hard to quantify, they greatly improved the effectiveness and the timeliness of project-based communication and cross-team coordination.

Form-based timesheets. Every employee must fill out and manually sign a timesheet once a week. Before migrating to Exchange, each employee in the company created a timesheet by running a timesheet program and printing a paper copy. We moved the timesheet form into an Excel spreadsheet with a few macros and built-in pick lists and published it in the Exchange organizational forms library. Now, employees create and print their weekly timesheets in an Outlook client and have the option of mailing the form to a manager and themselves. Because this company requires original signatures on timesheets, the paper copies must still be manually submitted. However, should an electronic version become acceptable, the time savings of email over paper delivery are obvious.

Keys to Success
If you decide to implement a collaboration strategy, you're either modeling or modifying corporate communication methods. To have a successful strategy, you must incorporate two key factors: policies and procedures and user education.

Policies and procedures. Without policies and procedures, a shared network drive quickly takes on the look of a 30-year-old garage or kitchen junk drawer—shares proliferate at random and without much order. When you transfer this functionality to Exchange, you need guidelines that ensure you create shared areas in a standard way. A method for publishing a company-wide index to the shared content is also helpful.

Guidelines are essential when users request a folder at the top level of the site or public hierarchy. Guidelines define the responsibilities of the folder owner, which typically include creating and managing all subfolders and content. In a multisite or global organization, IT and the folder owner must decide whether, when, and where to replicate a folder to other sites in the organization.

A typical public folder policies and procedures document must address the following issues:

  • The approval process for new top-level folder requests
  • The request date and requesting individual
  • A business-need justification and a description of the content
  • Start and end dates when applicable
  • The folder owner(s)
  • Type and name of the folder
  • Content age limit and deleted item retention period
  • Replication requirements (if any)
  • Mandatory training and completion date

Educating users. To educate users, you must first clearly convey the rules for sending email versus publishing content in public folders. Second, you must educate employees about the new model. You will have to train users accustomed to spoon-fed communication via an inbox to find and browse collaboration areas on a regular basis. This go and look approach only works when employees embrace the responsibility for staying informed. Third, you must train users how to own and manage the collaboration areas.

In my experience, the process of educating users can require a significant change to the corporate culture, one that takes many months to internalize. However, as this article illustrates, the rewards far outweigh the time and energy you invest to develop a collaborative communication model.

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