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The price of progress

Webinars and wireless email open up a whole new world of opportunity but these technological leaps come with a catch

One of the things that initially appeared to be exciting about working in IT was the constant stream of conferences and seminars - an educational nirvana and a professional networker's wet dream. I now feel that the very thing that initially appealed is the same thing that grates, and I only attend events that experience suggests will deliver real gain. Furthermore, as work commitments have intensified in the past few years, my ability to take time out to travel to a conference for just one or two key presentations has diminished.

So last month I attended my first 'webinar' - an online seminar from the comfort of my own desk. It was hosted by AIIM, and all I needed was a computer (my trusty Dell laptop) and an internet connection. The presentation was then delivered with voice and a PowerPoint accompaniment in real time to my browser. It was even possible to post questions as they arose, by emailing the moderator who then verbalised my text in almost real time. The webinar lasted 55 minutes and my time out of the office was? well, I guess about 30 minutes in real terms as I was able to respond to email and general office requests without losing concentration while the webinar proceeded.

What's more, the content was fascinating - email and managing the beast! I know that email has replaced traditional forms of communication in many instances, but I did not imagine the sheer volume of daily email transaction statistics. Some 60 per cent of business communication is now via email, with 9.7 billion messages being sent each day. With such large volumes of email traffic, I was alarmed to hear that recent AIIM statistics suggested that up to 50 per cent of organisations are not storing email properly. Indeed, the Sarbanes Oxley report confirmed that email is an important part of corporate memory and is often used as 'best evidence' in litigation. We were informed that both of these statements were underpinned by what was referred to as the 'Canary Wharf incident'. Following the IRA bomb at South Quay in 1996, one half of the businesses affected by the damage ceased trading within 12 months. This was attributed to poor information management rendering the businesses incapable of recovery.

This concept of 'information is king' is not new by any means but the email vehicle for delivery and the way it bypasses conventional documentcontrol processes clearly causes difficulties. These are sufficient to build barriers between senders and recipients and their big brother that is document control. I was intrigued and anxious to hear how the experts felt that technology could provide a solution to the problem. While there are clearly options for implementing costly enterprise data management systems, I was stunned to hear that, realistically, the best results any company can hope to achieve would be through the instigation of robust and practical 'policies'. Some of the policies suggested included rules for how and what to save to a central location or database for future indexing and retrieval, and rules for 'big brother' access to personal mail stores. One book that was recommended for companies keen on investigating practical policies is the Seven Keys of or Information Management Compliance, and a link is available at www. aiim. org. uk.

This last concept of company access to personal mail stores is a real bone of contention. Due to strict privacy legislation, employees must be made aware through policy of their company's intention to read all email sent or received through the company domain. And yet the same week, I learned of the relative insecurity of POP3 email in a wireless network environment. I was returning to my desk after a meeting when a consultant working on our Microsoft Exchange server upgrade made a joke about intercepting my POP3 email passwords. I queried his claims before he grinned and quoted two passwords to me - two real passwords!

While I sat in stunned silence the techie talked of 'sniffers' for listening to network traffic and explained the principles of 'wireless broadcasts' and how the plain text POP3 protocol is easier to read than The Sun!

This vulnerability of our ubiquitous and omnipotent form of business communication has wider ramifications. With the increasing ability to venture out with your laptop and wireless network card to public access points in locations like Starbucks, motorway service stations, airports and, of course, IT conferences, the risks of your email messages with usernames and passwords being intercepted by individuals or organisations with malice aforethought are high. Many aspects of the Internet enable vast improvement in the working environment, but for every plus there is a minus. The webinar format appears to be a real gain, but you have to set against the time saved out of the office the fact that networking opportunities are lost. Email delivers enormous benefits for speed of communication at the expense of management process, and wireless convenience could lead to the insecure transportation of valuable corporate memory.

So the next time you sit with your large skinny latte performing a quick check on your email, be warned.

You may not be the only person who is reading your mail.

Joe Croser can be contacted at joe@ croser. net

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