Alfresco Email and Versioning – Leveraging Alfresco IMAP

One of things ECM clients seem to struggle with is how to manage email integration between email programs and the back-end ECM repository.  This post will discuss a recent experience of how one law firm is leveraging Alfresco to manage emails and documents attached to emails while maintaining proper version control on critical documents.

ECM Email Issues

Document collaboration for most law firms is similar to other industries where the bulk of the document revisions happen via emails with attachments.  Many times, those of us in ECM will too quickly recommend “use a collaboration tool!!!!!  How about… (eRoom,  DropBox, SharePoint….)”.  Interestingly, this law firm was an early adopter in their industry of a collaboration ECM site and constructing their own collaboration site to be used between law firms.  Their experience, while very good a first, degraded as other firms developed their own collaboration sites.  After some time, the discussion of “whose site do we use”, particularly when 3, 4 or 5 separate firms are included, resulted in a simple fallback to rely on email with attachments. As it relates to documents and emails for law firms, the goals for this client include:

  1. Maintain relevant email correspondence and attachments grouped by some kind of case or matter folder/site/cabinet hierarchy.  Old emails should be able to be quickly found and forwarded as necessary.
  2. Maintain document versions within the same hierarchy as the emails.
  3. Ability to successfully access and store both emails and documents from a variety of devices (PCs and tablets)

Issues with email and ECM to meet these goals include:

  • Attachments – During the back and forth of document revisions, detail about the changes are included in the emails.  The ECM system has to store both the email as a document as well as the document(s) themselves.
  • Emails – Lawyers would like to be more mobile and be able to access documents from a variety of devices, particularly from email on their mobile devices.

Alfresco email integration via IMAP

Alfresco provides a very complete method of exposing limited ECM functions to any email tool via IMAP (Internet Messaging Access Protocol).  IMAP provides a folder structure that can be shared and synched across multiple clients.  Some unique capabilities of Alfresco in regards to IMAP that the client is planning on using include:

  • Ability to tie to any email program that supports the IMAP protocol.  This includes Outlook and other PC programs but also the majority of Phone and Tablet apps.
  • IMAP actually replicates the email content from the server to the local device.  Unlike a network drive or other ECM applications where the client needs to be connected to the network, IMAP allows the client to work unconnected from the network and will synch the content when reconnected. We may want to say this provides a read only view of the repository as well as ability to queue up items for upload via your native client. I am not sure how good the native clients are at doing this with IMAP. I know however this is a prominent feature of Exchanged called Work Offline
  • Alfresco provides the ability to subscribe to a site and have it appear as a IMAP folder.
  • Alfresco provides the ability for both documents and emails to be available via the IMAP folder.

Additional documentation can be found on Alfresco’s MAPI capabilities here.

Email Document Issues – Versioning

The law firm plans to expose IMAP folders to users based on the matters they are currently working on, In Alfresco this is the equivalent of “starring” or “subscribing” to a Share Site.  Once a matter is archived, it will not be available via IMAP.  A custom browser interface will provide search and retrieval of documents via PCs or Tablets.

One major issue was that, while IMAP provides a unique way to retrieve emails and documents as well as drag in new emails and attachments, it does not provide a method to “check in” versions.  After discussions with the client, it was determined that, since many emails come with multiple attachments, a custom part of the application will provide a resolution screen to append versions to existing documents or create new standalone documents within a matter.

As an example, the Lawyer, leveraging IMAP-based mount point, drags an outside email with a document attached into the matter folder.   The email is automatically placed in a Queue associated with the matter for later processing.   The Lawyer, or their assistant, accesses the Queue through the browser interface to determine if the attached document(s) need to be indexed as separate documents.  The indexing could either involve the creation of a new document or adding the attachment as a new version to an existing document.

Let us know your thoughts or other use cases below:

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