The Silent ROI Killer

The productivity of IT staffers and e-mail users takes a big hit from the scourge of spam.

How do you reduce the impact of spam on employee productivity without overinvesting in technology?

To answer that question, our team at Nucleus Research Inc. conducted in-depth interviews with 117 employees at 76 U.S. companies to learn about their experience with spam. We also conducted extensive interviews with 28 IT administrators responsible for managing e-mail and other corporate applications to understand the impact of spam on IT infrastructure and resources. Here's what we found:

  • The average employee receives 13.3 spam messages per day.
  • Employees spend anywhere from 1 minute to 90 minutes per day managing spam -- the average time being 6.5 minutes per day.
  • The average lost productivity per employee per year: 1.4%.
  • The average cost of spam per employee per year: $874.

Some employees had such severe spam problems that they were forced to invest in desktop filters and then learn to use them. But even with the filters adjusted to their personal profiles and preferences, these individuals still spent an average of 12.5 minutes per day -- nearly twice the average -- screening and managing incoming mail, at a cost of $1,625 per year in lost productivity. This figure is a leading indicator of the potential cost of spam as volumes grow. So even for highly trained users with sophisticated personalized filtering devices, spam had a dramatic negative effect on productivity.

If companies lose an average of 1.4% of each employee's productivity each year because of spam, then for every 72 employees a company has, it loses the equivalent of at least one employee's services to spam for the year.

Organizations can somewhat reduce the impact of spam on their employees by deploying companywide spam filters. Filter technology isn't perfect, but we found that it reduced the average amount of time employees spend managing spam to five minutes a day, cutting the average annual cost per employee 26% to $650.

However, administrators have found a number of challenges with filters:

  • Spam sophistication. Spammers use punctuation, spaces and other methods to avoid the rules that filters use to block spam.
  • Ineffective technology. Many administrators found that aggressive filters delayed or aborted delivery of business messages or were ineffective in filtering out spam unless it met specific guidelines.
  • Employee adoption. While many companies had filters in place, employee use of the filters varied, and additional employee education efforts were needed.
  • Effective policies and management. Although many companies had e-mail policies, they didn't have a consistent corporate strategy for educating employees about spam, resulting in ad hoc employee education instead of widespread understanding. (For tips about educating employees to deal with spam, go to QuickLink 41897 .)

So filtering technology isn't a panacea. As spam volume and spammers' sophistication grow, the problem will just get worse for most organizations, even those with sophisticated filtering.

IT's Problem, Too

We found that the average amount of time IT staffs spend managing spam-related problems each week was 4.5 hours -- half a day! And IT staffers aren't just managing filters and deleting messages. They're responding to help desk requests, ensuring that employees who've received offensive e-mails feel they've gotten an appropriate response to their problem, and educating users about spam and how they can limit their exposure.

Some companies are spending nearly a quarter of an IT employee's time managing spam issues. Companies should assume that, on a per-mailbox basis, administrators will spend an average of 0.7 minutes per employee per week on spam-related issues.

In theory, that means that for every 690 employees, one full-time IT staff person will be needed just to manage spam. (In reality, it probably means that the existing IT employees just become more overworked or have to put out spam fires instead of doing more profitable activities.)

Many companies worry that, even with filters, unsolicited e-mail sent to employees may provoke legal action. According to one IT administrator, "One of the reasons we got into spam filtering is the offensive-content lawsuits that could arise."

So what do you do about the rising cost of spam? Employee training, filters and California's new antispam law are a good start, but they won't solve the problem. Recent activity by Microsoft Corp. and others in pursuing legal action against spammers suggests another approach. In June, Microsoft filed 15 lawsuits against spammers; Inc. followed in August with lawsuits against 11 Internet advertisers, which Amazon accuses of spoofing its e-mail address to send spam.

Given the cost of spam, large companies may want to consider similar legal action, which is potentially more cost-effective than simply investing in a filter that will only reduce, not eliminate, spam's impact.

Campbell is president and CEO of Nucleus Research Inc., an independent research firm in Wellesley, Mass. Wettemann is vice president of research at the firm.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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