I ran across one of the shiny new Big Belly solar trash compactors in Boston this evening. As Mayor Menino is demonstrating in the photo, it swallows trash through a drawer in the front. Its big so that it can hold a lot of the stuff. And the innovative guys and girls at Seahorse Power Company have added a solar panel on the top to power a built in compactor, enabling Big Belly to hold even more, and without it needing to be plugged in to a nearby streetlight to power the compactor. This gives it an air of environmental friendliness that probably fools some of Boston's residents into believing that they are being very 'green' by feeding the thing. But its real reason for doing this is to save on the frequently overflowing trash cans scattered around the city, being picked up by an overstretched workforce.
I want to compare Big Belly with email archiving. Email archiving technology is only successful because of the need to overcome the issue that email, as written about by Keith Harrison-Broninski, is not suitable for business use. The fundamental reason for archiving emails was obscured long ago: ensure an auditable record of all communications. Now these systems sell on their capability to consume more email than the email server can sensibly store.
To me, Big Belly and email archiving both represent an underlying problem that we are trying to hide by their use. We create too much trash and too much email. And this was sadly reinforced when I was finishing up my stroll round the city. There was a guy wheeling a shopping cart full to overflowing with glass and metal containers that earlier in the day were holding beverages of different varieties. As a power user of his chariot he deftly ignored the 4 lanes of traffic he was steering across, maneuvering the empty cans and bottles towards an unknown (to me) destination that would presumably pay him a few cents for each pound of waste material he wheeled in.
In my mind the 'green' veneer of the Big Belly solar trash compactor was wearing off, probably as fast as its shiny paint will when attacked by Boston's road grit and salt this winter. Sure, it chews a lot of stuff up, requiring less maintenance, but none of that stuff is recycled. Boston, unlike other more progressive cities, has not really recognized the value of recycling on the street. And the people that do, like the shopping cart guy, will have an important source of revenue crushed up inside a large green box.
Along similar lines, email archiving enables the IT group to continue to operate the inefficient and ineffective business communication mechanism, requiring less emptying, while trapping all of the information value inside individual user mailboxes.
As Microsoft pushes its ECM strategy and other vendors are forced to respond, many more users will become familiar with collaborative tools for sharing documents and capturing discussions. These capabilities are offered today by MS Sharepoint, Vignette Collaboration, Documentum eRoom, amongst others. When used as most users do these tools at least provide a sensible collection point for what would otherwise have been trashed email attachments and messages, which is a start.
Hopefully the enterprise will also embrace the technologies that could really reduce email trash: blogs, wikis, RSS and IM. Only then can the email archive return to what it was really intended for, to capture auditable copies of valuable email communications, thus enabling far more effective legal discovery processes and significantly reduced storage costs.
As for the Big Belly trash compactor, I fear it may be here to stay. Good luck shopping cart guy!