Managing the e-mail avalanche

More efficient processes ease engineers’ task of filing and finding project information.

Civil engineers use software to increase their productivity. But technology that saves time can sometimes create more work, too. Just ask any engineer buried under loads of e-mail or frustrated by prolonged document searches.

One engineer summarized his frustration this way: "Where is that technology that will help us get back to doing our real work—instead of chasing e-mail, sorting through file directories on different drives, and calling in the IT department to help with large file transmissions?"

Among technology-related process issues, e-mail stands out as one of the most pressing. For example, it’s hard to file e-mails together with related project documents such as drawings and specifications. Previously, an administrative assistant or librarian made sure letters, memos, transmittals, and other paper documents went in the right files. These experts managed the process. Today, most companies ask engineers to file documents electronically.

And if filing e-mail is hard, then finding email—buried in an overloaded inbox or on back-up tapes—is even worse. Microsoft’s Bill Gates cites industry estimates that information workers in general spend as much as 30 percent of their time searching for information.

Based on input from practicing engineers, a successful project information management process, as it relates to e-mail specifically and documents in general, requires the following elements:

  • users can file e-mail and associated documents with just a few clicks;
  • multiple people can refer to the same e-mail;
  • the system automatically culls redundant messages; 
  • users can find e-mail and other documents in just a few clicks; 
  • one search finds all relevant project information, regardless of file type; 
  • users can easily narrow searches by project-related criteria to a reasonable number of prospects; and 
  • even if documents are misfiled (and they will be misfiled), users can still find them easily.

Common approaches

Engineering firms are using at least the following four approaches to manage filing and locating project e-mails:

File e-mail in a project folder—Faced with an e-mail that belongs in a project folder, some people are taking the following steps in Microsoft Outlook: 

  1. Select the message to file. 
  2. Under "File" in the toolbar, select "Save As…" 
  3. Navigate to the appropriate project folder in the file directories. 
  4. Select the appropriate file type (probably MSG). 
  5. Click "Save."

For busy engineers, this five-step procedure has about four steps too many! With large offices using multiple servers in multiple locations, there is simply too much room for human error, which means misfiled e-mails. Another problem arises when every recipient of a widely circulated e-mail files the same message in the project folder. Soon, folders become as bloated as e-mail inboxes.

File e-mail in Outlook Public Folders—The easy way to file project-related e-mail is to not file it with other project documents, but place it in a public folder in Outlook. There are just two steps: 1) if not already viewing Outlook mail in "Folder List," select that mode; and 2) drag and drop the related e-mail into the appropriate project folder or subfolder.

However, this approach has the following shortcomings: 

  • in an office with a large number of projects, users need to wend their way through hundreds of project folders and subfolders to file the e-mail (Tip: Create a Favorites link in Outlook to the projects currently being worked on);
  • searching among thousands of e-mails in the project folders is painfully time-consuming; and 
  • project e-mail is separate from all other sources of project information, making a holistic view difficult.

Delegate filing to experts—Another solution to the problem of hard-to-find information is to resort to methods that worked prior to having e-mail: Have a librarian or assistant do it. This solution presents its own issues related to headcount and staff turnover. Administrative salaries are overhead expense, and filing experts can leave the firm, taking knowledge with them. Some companies still justify it by acknowledging the help it offers time-strapped engineers. Increasingly, however, this is not a viable, long-term solution.

Develop your own software—One organization got tired of waiting for software companies to solve the problem and developed a macro that shortens the steps needed to file e-mail with other project documents. The IT team appreciates the fact that backups of project folders include e-mail, but this solution doesn’t address the problem of finding e-mails in a reasonable time. Searches take a long time and are hard to narrow.

Hide and seek

The only reason to file a document is to be able to find it when it’s needed. That’s why every software application includes a "Find" feature.

Outlook, for example, allows users to search for e-mail, but searches are limited to Outlook files only. A program such as Google Desktop finds multiple file types, but users cannot easily narrow down searches. Alternate search software is available that helps narrow searches, but none make it easy to search within one project. In short, these solutions don’t address the criteria that e-mail and documents can be filed and later found, quickly and easily.

Consequently, Newforma developed software that works in sync with real-life work processes. For example, a Newforma Outlook toolbar allows users to file e-mails in project folders with the same click used to send the message. And, it automatically culls duplicates if more than one person files the same e-mail. Another button on the Outlook toolbar lets users classify e-mails as critical issues and assign them to team members to resolve, as well as share them with the larger team. They go into special "issues" folders for that purpose.

Searching also is tailored to industry need. Searching all types of project information at once is as simple as typing in a search term; the program even finds results that are buried inside x-refs, e-mail attachments, and zip files. Many easy-to-use filtering options help users narrow these results to an actionable data set, with previews available for each file.

"Process enablement" software such as Newforma Project Center helps users drive project workflows more efficiently, and to greater effect. Software that thinks about process first and technology second is indeed the approach that will help civil engineers get back to doing the real work of engineering.

Bob Batcheler, P.E., vice president of industry marketing for Newforma, Inc., has project experience at firms such as Bechtel and Black & Veatch, and has worked as a software professional for such companies as Softdesk and Autodesk. Newforma ( serves architects and engineers worldwide with software to improve project process efficiency.

Better searching

Search requirements for civil engineers are different from those provided by desktop- and application-based searching tools. Following are some minimum requirements:

Document types—Search software must support all of the industry’s document types at once, including DWG, DGN, DWF, PDF and MSG (Microsoft Outlook), among many others.

Search results—A successful search tool must provide an effective means to narrow search results. Such criteria would include file types, dates, and, for e-mails, "To," "From," and "Subject" specifications.

Project context—One of the most logical and effective ways to narrow search volumes is to search by project.

Related documents—An effective search finds not only an e-mail, but also its attachments; not just a drawing, but its external references. (An AutoCAD drawing might have external references to many other drawings, but only show visible text from a few of them because of viewport or layer settings.)

Location of terms in documents—An effective search tool not only finds the document, but also locates search terms within the document.

Scalability—An engineering firm’s search technology must be able to support thousands of projects containing terabytes of data without subjecting users to long, drawn-out searches.

Posted in | January 29th, 2014 by

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