I was having a discussion with some attorneys recently about making everything accessible from within Outlook. Their collective spin was that they spend all of their time in Outlook, so IT needs to make everything work from within Outlook. My response to this was, “We need to get rid of Outlook. Email clients like Outlook have been the worst thing for the legal profession since we were forced to transition away from WordPerfect 5.1.” You can only imagine the reaction I received from these attorneys. I was being a bit over the top, but sometimes you need a little drama to get people’s attention.

I am not suggesting that we abandon Outlook, though the insistence that everything work from within Outlook is causing serious performance issues. The real issue is that programs like Outlook tend to thwart the sharing of knowledge.

There is a great deal of institutional knowledge in email. Many conversations begin and end in email. And although we have the ability to save those conversations into a knowledge management system, the user needs to take some action, which requires consistency and time – time that most knowledge workers do not have. The unfortunate result is that we leave a lot of institutional knowledge (your firm’s collective knowledge, intellectual property and culture) on the table, only to disappear with the retirement of your firm’s thought leaders.

I do not have the fix for this just yet. But I do know that we need to appreciate the amount of information that is lost in emails. There are technologies available today that make it much easier to collect and repurpose this information. Threaded discussions (or forums) are one way to accomplish this. Social networking tools have the necessary features to extract information from discussions, apply tags to help categorize information, and at the very least, to store information in a way that makes it easy to index by search engines. Migrating users to this approach would require change and orchestrating change is difficult. There are some very interesting search engines that can infer meaning based on context and can cluster information based on concepts. One interesting approach to this problem is Recommind’s Decisiv Email. Decisiv does a great deal of the heavy lifting necessary to get email content into a system that provides fast and easy searching. They do this by making intelligent suggestions about how email should be filed. This same approach can (and should) apply to email tagging.

We need to start fixing this now. We are in the midst of an important transition as senior members of our workforce continue to retire, taking their knowledge with them. Past generations walked down the hall and met face to face – this is how institutional knowledge was passed on before the web changed our lives. Not only do we as individuals suffer from this lack of knowledge transfer, the entire organization suffers as well.